Needle exchange program: Compassion vs. intolerance | Roegner

One of the more creative methods for treating drug users is the Seattle-King County Public Health’s needle exchange program, which seeks to reduce the spread of HIV and other blood-borne infections.

The goal is to get people off drugs. The concept is to give the user clean needles to replace used or contaminated ones. If professionals are able to gain the drug users’ confidence, they can help them into drug treatment and save their lives.

The process is client driven with compassion and patience equally as important in eventually hitting the right chord between clients’ desire to be free of drugs and professional support to obtain the help they need. King County spends $1.2 million per year on the needle exchange program and is funded by state, county and city disease prevention funds, donations and grants. There are four sites in Seattle that offer needle exchanges, along with one in North King County and another in South King County cities by appointment. The South County Outreach Referral and Exchange (SCORE program) visits Federal Way twice a week and has been operating since 2009.

The program is well intended and successful, but also controversial to some. Recently, the program became a political issue after a citizen passed herself off as a drug user, though she was not, and contacted SCORE for an appointment. With COVID-19 very much a concern to the health department, she was given enough needles to last two to three weeks. Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell was approached with her criticism of the program, but may not have known all the details of the program. Ferrell’s spokesperson Steve McNey was initially quoted in the Federal Way Mirror saying the city does not support any of the “convoluted logic” of the county health board, and further stated “the City of Federal Way does not support this program.”

Ferrell was thinking short-term political gain with conservatives when he over-reacted by asking Public Health Director Patty Hayes to suspend the program in Federal Way. Hayes, thinking long term, graciously agreed to a short pause.

This recent upheaval happened in Federal Way, but it could have happened anywhere. If left to those with the loudest voices, a worthy program could be vulnerable.

Fortunately, mayors and council members in Seattle and the suburban cities don’t control the program — or it might not continue to exist. This is Ferrell’s second over-reaction and attack on the needle exchange program in four years, even though there is nothing to replace it. In 2017, a rumor circulated from a candidate that said Federal Way was a candidate to be a needle exchange site. The rumor was not true, and Ferrell knew that by the time the city council met. But with the support of a more conservative council, Ferrell supported a resolution that outlawed safe injection sites within the city limits.

Circulating for signatures at the same time was Initiative 27, which sought a public vote to outlaw needle exchanges countywide. Ferrell was up for election in 2017, as he is this year, and as one close observer of city government said recently, “we’ve seen this before,” suggesting that Ferrell was purposely using the issue for political gain to bring out his conservative supporters.

This year, Ferrell has been considered vulnerable on the left and has been courting minorities and liberal voters in an effort to soften his conservative image. In 2017, the resolution opposing safe injection sites for heroin addicts was nothing more than a political sham in the guise of a public policy discussion, as only one point of view was presented. It was not Federal Way’s finest hour.

In the most recent instance, we saw and heard in one jurisdiction (through public testimony) two different views of the program. In what had to be a personally difficult and revealing moment of their inner fears in a public setting, several former drug addicts told of why the believed in the program and shared heart-warming stories of how the needle exchange program saved them, and how the caring and compassionate professionals they met guided them off drugs. They provided firsthand evidence of why the program is needed and necessary.

Several others demonstrated a preconceived reaction of why they feel the program should not continue, but little firsthand knowledge or ideas on what might replace the program. Some speakers were simply intolerant of the concept, or the people using drugs, and what some of their fellow citizens face each day with their addiction while trying to gain the strength to kick the habit.

Many were unfamiliar with the program’s process or details. The county health director only agreed to a short pause in the program in Federal Way, and Ferrell has taken an overdue step back by appointing a committee of citizens, supplemented by health professionals, to report back to the council by June 1 with ideas. But the danger is there could be an expectation from those opposed to the needle exchange program that negotiations on the program’s future may be possible. They may also have an expectation that they can influence other communities.

However, in his zeal to appease conservative voters in an election year, Ferrell has driven the city in to a cul-de-sac with no way out. By making it a political issue that may attract more conservative voters, the mayor has potentially put current council members up for election this year at risk because they are not as conservative as the council in 2017.

Ferrell has tried to sound open to ideas on the issue, but he is barely able to mask his disagreement with the needle exchange program. The health department is unlikely to abolish a successful program, and it seems equally unlikely that the committee will be able to provide a substantive alternative program agreeable to the health department, and the residents who are split between support, and those who want to abolish the program.

And what about the drug users — what do they do for the next couple of months? Will they make their appointments in other cities ? They will certainly feel like their own city doesn’t support them.

Lastly, the health department has the final word based on the state Supreme Court’s decision on I-27. The Supreme Court upheld a lower court view that banning the needle exchange program would be an infringement on the power of the King County Board of Health. The Board of Health’s concern is countywide and their goal is to get people off drugs. It isn’t to worry about the divided politics in one suburban city. Politics? Ferrell asked Council President Susan Honda, who is also vice chair of the King County Board of Health, to co-chair the Federal Way committee. Honda ran against Ferrell four years ago and some speculate she might be thinking of running again. But the committee’s conclusions are not likely to achieve consensus among competing groups, other than some notification alerts, and Ferrell has put Honda on the hot seat.

The needle exchange program should not become political fodder in any community. People’s lives are at stake.

This was democracy in action, but it wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t thoughtful. And no other community should follow this example. What if opposition spreads to other cities without a fair description of the full program from trained professionals? How many times will drug addicts be willing to tell their story before they give up? And what are we? Are we thoughtful and compassionate, or are we intolerant of others’ weaknesses?

Health director Patty Hayes was playing a long game by agreeing to a short pause, knowing she had the law on her side, while Ferrell was playing a short term game for political gain. Fortunately the health department has the final decision — and they know the facts and the program.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact