Executive Constantine, Mayor Murray announce task force to confront heroin and opiate prescription addiction

King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray are bringing together a wide range of experts to recommend immediate actions to confront the region’s growing heroin and prescription opiate epidemic.

More people in King County now enter detox for heroin than they do alcohol. In 2014, opiate overdose deaths were the highest ever recorded in King County—more than triple the number of deaths in 2009.

“Addiction to heroin and prescription pain killers is devastating families in every one of our communities—sparing no age, race, gender, neighborhood or income level,” said Executive Constantine. “Our region has a proud tradition of working together across disciplines to achieve a common goal. It’s now time for us to apply that sense of shared purpose to confront this epidemic.”

“I have declared a state of emergency to address homelessness, but I am told by our outreach workers and officers that hundreds of the people who live on our streets are struggling with addiction,” said Mayor Murray. “If we are ever to get people into permanent housing, we must do more on chemical dependency treatment. That means asking the tough questions about how we improve our response to this national heroin epidemic and the resulting property crime and disorder.”

The task force includes more than 30 members representing multiple disciplines, such as public health, human service agencies, criminal justice, cities, University of Washington, hospitals, treatment providers, and others working together to expand the region’s capacity for treatment and prevention capacity.

“Heroin use and overdoses have continued to plague King County, just like the rest of the country—and the rising use by teenagers is particularly troubling,” said King County Sheriff John Urquhart. “We must work together to find a way to reduce this killer drug.”

Heroin-related deaths in King County highest in 20 years 

There were 156 heroin-related deaths in King County in 2014, the highest number in 20 years. Substance abuse is one of the root causes of homelessness, and drug overdose is currently the leading causes of death among people who are homeless.

Treatment for addiction is most effective when it is delivered at the right time and in the right setting. Because the treatment capacity in King County has not kept up with sharp increase in heroin and prescription opiate addiction, many people end up receiving treatment in the most expensive settings, including hospitals and jails.

As of Oct. 1, 2015, about 3,615 people were receiving methadone treatment in King County, but lack of treatment capacity leaves more than 150 people on a waitlist each day. Other effective treatment options exist, but they are used inconsistently and are not available in all parts of the county.

Next steps for the task force members

The Task Force on Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction will convene in March and will immediately begin developing short- and long-term action steps to:

  • Expand treatment capacity
  • Increase access to evidence-based treatment options
  • Expand prevention efforts
  • Increase public awareness and understanding of addiction
  • Explore other options and opportunities to improve access to treatment on demand and reduce overdose and death.

Unlike the heroin epidemic in the 1990s, which was largely contained to Seattle, this spike in addiction is hitting every community in King County.

Task Force on Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction members

Quotes

Addiction to heroin and prescription pain killers is devastating families in every one of our communities—sparing no age, race, gender, neighborhood or income level. Our region has a proud tradition of working together across disciplines to achieve a common goal. It’s now time for us to apply that sense of shared purpose to confront this epidemic.

Dow Constantine, King County Executive

I have declared a state of emergency to address homelessness, but I am told by our outreach workers and officers that hundreds of the people who live on our streets are struggling with addiction. If we are ever to get people into permanent housing, we must do more on chemical dependency treatment. That means asking the tough questions about how we improve our response to this national heroin epidemic and the resulting property crime and disorder.

Ed Murray, Seattle Mayor

Heroin use and overdoses have continued to plague King County, just like the rest of the county—and the rising use by teenagers is particularly troubling. We must work together to find a way to reduce this killer drug.

John Urquhart, King County Sheriff

It is encouraging to see a wide range of dedicated experts come together to solve this issue on a regional level. I look forward to working with the task force to find equitable and sustainable solutions to the heroin and opiate epidemic facing King County.

Jeanne Kohl-Welles, King County Councilmember and Chair of the Health, Housing and Human Services Committee

I appreciate that Executive Constantine has taken the bold step to bring the issue of opiate addiction to the forefront so we can begin to address this crisis.

Nancy Backus, Auburn Mayor

I applaud King County for recognizing the severity of the problem related to heroin and other opiates and for pulling together regional experts to help address it. Heroin abuse is impacting every community in the region, and we need to work together to try and develop a sustainable solution to this rapidly growing crisis.

Denis Law, Renton Mayor

The heroin treatment response combating this epidemic must go beyond the political limitations of this community.

Norm Johnson, Executive Director, Therapeutic Health Services

It is important to be able to provide treatment on demand, to people when they need treatment, where they need treatment with the best treatment available. People do recover and treatment works.

Brad Finegood, Assistant Division Director, King County Dept. of Human Services, Behavioral Health and Recovery Division

Right now we have thousands of people addicted to heroin in our county, most of whom desperately want help to quit or reduce their use. Treatment with medications like methadone or buprenorphine cuts the chances of dying in half. I’m excited to work with this task force to get urgently needed interventions out into our communities as quickly as possible.

Dr. Caleb Banta-Green, Senior Research Scientist, University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute

Prescription pain medication and heroin addiction is a chronic disease like cardiovascular disease and diabetes, that is difficult to cure but can be effectively treated. We need to fight this epidemic as we would any other disease, with a multi-faceted public health approach to help people who are already addicted get treatment and prevent people from becoming addicted in the first place. Punishment and stigmatization are not useful cures for any disease.

Dr. Jeff Duchin, Health Officer, Public Health – Seattle & King County