Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pierce County Takes Step To Ban Safe-Injection Sites

Darryl Dyck
AP Photo/The Canadian Press
A man injects heroin at North America's first safe-injection clinic in Vancouver, B.C., in 2011

Pierce County leaders took a first step Monday toward banning safe-injection sites in unincorporated parts of the county. 

A committee of the County Council voted 2-1 to send the proposal to the full council, where members could take a final vote as early as May. 

The proposal would ban locations where people can inject drugs such as heroin under medical supervision, but the ban would not apply to cities like Tacoma.

Safe-injection sites, also known as safe-consumption sites or supervised injection sites, are one idea to stem deaths from opioid overdose, though they have proven controversial in Washington State and beyond.

"We're talking about the impression we give to our children," said Pierce County Council Member Pam Roach, who supports the ban.

Roach, a Republican, also said she feared more drug users would come to Pierce County as other municipalities impose their own bans.

"We want to nip it in the bud and take care of it," Roach said.

Snohomish County officials voted to ban the sites last week. Some cities have passed their own bans, including Bellevue and Lynnwood.

No one is proposing a safe-injection site in Pierce County.  King County leaders are weighing the idea of opening such a site, which could be the first in the United States. Other cities such as Philadelphia are considering it as well.

North America's first safe-injection site opened in 2003 in Vancouver, British Columbia.

In Pierce County, critics of the ban said county leaders should remain open to new ideas.

“This country is in the grips of an opioid epidemic and we should take advantage of every opportunity to save lives," said County Council Member Rick Talbert. "And to cut ourselves off at the foot because we’re afraid or we believe or disagree with the activity is asinine.”

Talbert, a Democrat, and others pointed out that, 30 years ago, Tacoma was the first city in the nation with a needle exchange program, another so-called "harm reduction" strategy designed to reduce deaths among drug users.

Ingrid Walker, a University of Washington Tacoma professor who has studied drug policy, said Tacoma is known across the country as a leader in "humane" strategies for that reason.

"It would be unfortunate for us to turn back on that history without first looking into what safe-consumption sites can do for our city," she said. "It is a great answer to a terrible crisis that is killing hundreds of people a day." 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.