What's Tony Thinking

Seattle’s Drug Crisis


Alex Fryer, of the Seattle Times, had an excellent piece in yesterday’s edition about how divided people in Seattle are in their approach to Seattle’s growing drug addiction problem, now exacerbated by fentanyl flooding the market.

Fryer begins with what he calls the ruling orthodoxy on the issue, which is, “Meeting people where they are at.” He describes it as follows:

“In the region’s battle against substance abuse, this mantra is sacrosanct public policy. It dictates that those seeking to help others don’t judge or cajole. It’s about building trust so that incremental steps can be made toward guiding someone to a safer, better life. The approach dovetails with what’s called ‘harm reduction’ — lowering the personal and societal costs of potentially dangerous behaviors. Example: needle exchanges to prevent HIV transmission between intravenous drug users.” Another example, a city-funded program to hand out pipes to those who smoke fentanyl.

While this is the prevailing orthodoxy here and politicians are reluctant to challenge it, Fryer cited questions raised by City Council member, Sarah Nelson, herself a recovering alcoholic. Nelson wanted to know what evidence there is to indicate that such harm-reduction strategies are effective in preventing or reducing the number of overdoses on the streets of Seattle.

Nelson, salmon-like, is swimming against the current. As are the staff of the organization “We Heart Seattle,” which has no qualms about going all out to help people get into treatment for drug addiction. Fryer recounts the story of their efforts to get one man into treatment, which it turns out is a lot harder than it ought to be.

In response to Nelson’s questions an advocate of “meeting people where they are at,” Amber Tejada of the Hepatitis Education Project explained to Nelson, “There are folks who don’t want to stop using drugs. There are folks for whom abstinence is not something by which they measure success in life . . . Ultimately,” added Tejada, “bodily autonomy is key.”

I’m not entirely sure what Tejada’s reference to “bodily autonomy” means, but coupled with the rest of her statement it would seem that she is saying, some people are drug addicts because they want to be and that is maybe not anyone else’s business.

The difficulty with these assertions of individual choice and autonomy is that they overlook something important: our choices do impact others. What’s more, they have an effect on our whole community.

I’ve been away from Seattle for a time this summer. On returning, one of the things that is noticeable is how bad actors enact a big toll on the rest of us. Here are some examples of things I noticed after my being gone for a couple months:

I went to the local Bartells in search of a 9 volt battery to replace the one that was chirping in our fire alarm. There a lot of shelves are at best half-full. Why? I asked. Is it still supply-chain problems? No, said the clerk. It’s shop-lifting. People come in with bags and scoop the shelves.

Meanwhile, all the 9 volt batteries, along with lots of other stuff, are now under lock-and-key. To get one battery, meant tracking down the employee with the key. Then another employee had to extract some sort of plastic locking device from the battery packaging, which I imagine ends up in a land-fill.

Just down the street, a repairman is at work putting glass back in a door that has been shattered (again) at the branch office of a local bank. Seeing businesses with doors and windows covered in plywood is a regular thing in our Ballard neighborhood.

One more . . . when I went to drop off mail at the drive-by mailbox at the Post Office, it was no longer possible to roll down your window and drop the mail into a slot with an opening that is maybe 3″ x 15″ and then continue driving. The whole apparatus had been changed, I guess so that no one could stick their hand down the drop-off opening and get people’s mail, or checks in their mail. Now, you have to get out of your car to find the very tiny slot in which to place mail, which means idling the engine longer.

And back at the 10 unit building where I live, we are on our third garage door and maybe as many of the call boxes at the front door. All in response to break-ins and property destruction.

While some of this may be unrelated to drug addiction, my guess is that a lot of it is a spill-over from that. The larger point is that drug addiction doesn’t just affect the person experiencing addiction. It has terrible consequences for children and families, big implications for the health care system, and impacts on the entire social and business fabric of a community.

To return to Alex Fryer’s description of how widely divided we are between two approaches to drug addiction here in Seattle, does it really have to be one or the other? Are “meeting people where they are at,” and “finding ways to encourage and support people in getting treatment,” truly an either/ or? Can’t we do both? Can’t we ask what will incentivize people to seek treatment? And dis-incentivize drug use and addiction?

And can we be honest that even if there are some folks “for whom abstinence is not something by which they measure success in life,” it isn’t true that their choices impact their lives and welfare alone.




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