Pierce County, Latest To Seek Ban On Safe Injection Sites, Was Once A Pioneer Of 'Harm Reduction' | KNKX

Pierce County, Latest To Seek Ban On Safe Injection Sites, Was Once A Pioneer Of 'Harm Reduction'

Jun 19, 2018

Pierce County Council members are likely to vote Tuesday to ban sites where people can inject drugs under medical supervision. 

So-called "safe injection sites" are operating in Canada and under consideration by a few U.S. cities as a way to stem a tide of opioid overdoses.

The sites are part of a strategy called "harm reduction," which acknowledges drug users are going to use and looks for ways to prevent them from dying, even while their addiction remains active.

No one is proposing a safe injection site in Pierce County, but a push to open what could be the nation's first in Seattle has set off a rush by nearby cities and counties to block them preempitively. Pierce County's ban would affect unincorporated parts of the county, and not cities like Tacoma. 

If the ban passes, it will follow similar actions in Snohomish County and cities such as Bellevue, Auburn, Renton, and Federal Way. Supporters of banning the sites argue they encourage drug use. 

But Pierce County was home to a pioneering effort in harm reduction.

At the height of the AIDS epidemic 30 years ago, a Tacoma resident named Dave Purchase launched what is considered the nation's first legally-sanctioned needle exchange.

Credit Courtesy of the Point Defiance AIDS Projects

He set up a table on the sidewalk and began exchanging used needles for clean ones, no questions asked. The exchange still operates today under the nonprofit Point Defiance AIDS Projects. 

Purchase died in 2013. But Tacoma lawyer Michael Carroll worked at his side to set up the needle exchange. Carroll watched how his friend made the case for harm reduction at a time when no one knew what it was.

"Dave could get a group's attention after the first sentence," Carroll said. "He just had a way of making contact. He was the best extemporaneous speaker I ever met." 

Carroll spoke with KNKX reporter Will James about how Purchase and his allies convinced health officials, prosecutors, and a police chief that the needle exchange was a good idea. You can hear that story above.