EDITORIAL | Heroin policy needs to live up to political theater

The march of public progress is slow but sure. But rarely has that march seemed slower than on the opioid crisis.

On Sept. 15, King County Executive Dow Constantine, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, Renton Mayor Denis Law and Renton Mayor Nancy Backus were briefed on the recommendations of a task force of social workers and public health officials formed in March.

The King County Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force ultimately presented eight recommendations for combatting drug abuse as a public health issue, including more education, more outreach, more addiction screening in public institutions like school,  fewer barriers to on-demand treatment and fewer barriers to a ready supply of naloxone, a medication which reverses overdose. Notable were recommendations for fewer barriers to medications such as methadone and buprenorphine, as well as for two safe injection sites in King County -- one within Seattle’s borders and one without.

But when our county and city executives formed the task force earlier this year, they explicitly called for “immediate action” -- terminology that implies a rip-roaring, virile response to a new and emergent threat.

By contrast, the task force’s recommendations had the aura of a wish list.

For example, we learned that safe injection sites had been given an appropriately sanitized, sterile and government friendly name: Community Health Engagement Locations for individuals with substance abuse disorders. (Only the first four words, decidedly unrelated to substance abuse, made it into the CHEL acronym.)

But at a press conference on the recommendations, Constantine and Murray neatly deflected reporters’ questions pushing for even the vaguest indication of how much the CHEL sites might cost, how long they might take to be implemented, or where they might be located. Instead, they consistently urged the press to focus on how awesome it was that the government had decided to shift its drug policy away from cops or courts and toward the doctor’s office.

Hey, what’s that stuff the road to hell is paved with?

We’re not questioning the credentials of the task force, which was filled to the brim with qualified and motivated professionals. Two, Shilo Murphy and Thea Oliphant-Wells, are recovering addicts who kicked opiates and have since dedicated their careers to helping others find their way out of addiction with safety and dignity. Task force co-chair Brad Finegood lost his brother to opiate abuse 15 years ago.

But fifteen years takes us back to a time worth remembering as we move forward on : that would be 2001, the same year an eerily similar task force put together by Seattle Mayor Paul Schell and county Executive Ron Sims issued its recommendations for dealing with the rising heroin epidemic. The news media was already bringing prescription opiate abuse to the public’s attention -- even before Rush Limbaugh’s personal battle with painkiller addiction made OxyContin a household word.

Sometimes it seems like public officials and the media alike have failed to do much more than to repeat the mantra, “Look at this, look at this. Isn’t this a new and bewildering problem? Look at this.”

The county Board of Public Health took six years to convert that task force’s recommendations into an HIV prevention policy around safe intravenous drug use, in 2007.

What, we wonder, will be accomplished six years from now? Will we see our elected officials make good on “immediate action?” Or will we remain on a carousel of public theater, spinning ever faster while the path off becomes blocked by an ever-growing thicket of needles?