Dozens of doctors, nurses, medical students, and others descended on Seattle’s City Hall in early December last year, determined to be heard. Like the HIV/AIDS activists of an earlier era, they invaded the building’s glass-lined lobby and collapsed on the floor in dramatic fashion. Their motionless bodies were meant to make an urgent point.
“There is no time to wait. There is no time to deliberate,” says Carolanne Sanders, a 26-year-old former EMT and expert in health-care policy, recalling the message of the die-in nearly a year ago. “The more our elected officials drag their feet, the more people will die.”
Sanders is part of a militant group of health-care workers who have been pressing the city of Seattle and surrounding King County to radically alter their approach to the opioid crisis that is ravaging the region and the rest of the country. The group and its allies want their local government to establish professionally operated sites where people can consume the heroin, fentanyl, and other opiates that together caused more than 200 overdose deaths in the region last year. Seattle and King County officials have largely supported the idea, but political considerations, including the emergence of a ballot initiative meant to block the sites’ creation, as well as the recent resignation of Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, have hampered progress. And so, health-care activists continue to agitate for these sites, which they say could save countless lives.
They aren’t the only ones who think so. From Seattle and Philadelphia to Baltimore, San Francisco, and Ithaca, New York, a cohort of cities across the country are embracing the idea of supervised-consumption facilities, as they are sometimes called, to combat the opioid epidemic. Already widely used in Europe and Canada, these facilities provide places where drug users can consume narcotics in the presence of doctors and nurses and social workers trained in addiction treatment, disease prevention, and overdose mitigation. If they take root in the United States, they will provide a potent new tool in reducing addiction’s most harmful effects and fighting the overdose crisis that is currently the leading cause of death for Americans under 50. In 2016, overdoses killed approximately 64,000 people in this country—and the number is expected to keep rising in 2017, notwithstanding Donald Trump’s announcement that the opioid crisis is a public-health emergency.