Needle exchange service sparks heated debate in Federal Way

Mayor names 13-member committee tasked with developing new, community-driven plan for services.

Following the city’s urgent request in late March to suspend the Public Health — Seattle & King County needle exchange, several residents spoke about the decision at the April 6 Federal Way City Council meeting.

Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell requested Public Health — Seattle & King County suspend the South County Outreach Referral and Exchange (SCORE) program visits to Federal Way after a local resident said she posed as a drug addict and received a box of 100 clean syringes on March 25.

The county program is for people who use drugs by injection with the intent to reduce spread of HIV and other blood-borne infections among drug users and the larger community. Throughout the county, various sites allow drug users to exchange used and contaminated needles for new, clean syringes.

In addition, the program works to build trust with individuals with drug addictions to help them into drug treatment programs, counseling and more.

The SCORE van meets people at private residences, park and rides, or other public spots around King County.

Receiving 100 clean needles, Public Health said, is due to the program’s shift to a COVID-19 model, reducing exposure to both staff and visitors by providing enough clean needles to last several weeks.

Despite this, one local resident’s findings caused an uproar in the Federal Way community.

Some of the speakers during the April 6 public comment period denounced the needle exchange program, stating the program brings drug users and dealers to the city, and may be contributing to the upticks in crime around the city.

Federal Way resident Craig Patrick said a pause on the program is not enough.

“This needle van is creating a magnet effect and it’s contributing to the increase in crime,” he said. “We the people do not feel safe, supported or valued by our elected leaders regarding this issue.”

Anna Patrick, a Federal Way resident, said drug use is destroying the Federal Way community.

“I want King County to focus more on prevention and treatment … we need to stop attracting drug users from all over the country to our lax, accommodating cities,” she said.

Other attendees spoke in favor of the needle exchange program, many of whom are recovering drug addicts themselves.

Thea Oliphant-Wells, a Federal Way resident, is a former drug addict who “did a lot of damage to my body using one-time use syringes over and over,” she said.

By finding the needle exchange program in Seattle, Oliphant-Wells was connected to public health workers who showed kindness, offered resources and education on safe injection practices, and provided several opportunities for her to get into treatment.

“Those people were crucial to my survival … I didn’t have anyone else that I came into contact with at that time who treated me with any kind of dignity,” she said.

Matt Dillon, longtime Federal Way resident and former Federal Way High School graduate, lost his brother to an overdose and his mother to cancer when he was in his 20s. He turned to heroin to cope with the trauma, he said, using the SCORE van to exchange his used needles.

Years ago, Dillon overdosed in Federal Way and was pronounced dead at St. Francis Hospital. The hospital called his father with the news.

But after 20 minutes of CPR and three shots of Narcan, the hospital called his father back to report “they revived him, he’s alive,” Dillon recalled. “I would’ve been his second son to have died of a drug overdose.”

“This van is a vital resource to the community,” said Dillon, who has been in recovery for nearly five years. He found recovery, he said, because of the little card with treatment information handed to him at a needle exchange site.

“This [program] isn’t attracting heroin dealers and addicts to the community. The heroin addicts and dealers are already here,” he said.

When you consider the SCORE program, put the person you love most in the world in Dillon’s shoes, he added.

Heather Venegas, director of the King County Recovery Coalition and a Seattle resident, is a former addict soon celebrating 27 years of recovery. The needle exchange program, she said, is needed in Federal Way because of its ability to save lives through resources and medications to reverse overdoses.

According to Public Health data, there were 24 overdose deaths and 90 non-fatal drug overdoses in Federal Way in 2020.

Resolution to find common ground, service solutions

The council approved a resolution on April 6 acknowledging that needle exchange programs can be effective in preventing disease transmission and providing access to services.

However, “we do not believe it is appropriate to indiscriminately pass out needles in our community with no verifiable background on those receiving the needles and without notice to our community, local government, or healthcare providers,” the resolution reads in part.

Mayor Ferrell also announced the members of the 13-person committee tasked with exploring program options, solutions and goals for future services.

Ranging from citizens to subject matter experts, the members include City Council President and Public Health Board Vice Chair Susan Honda serving as chair of the working committee; former mayor and councilmember Jeanne Burbidge; resident Anna Patrick; resident Nicole Hoffman; resident Diana Noble-Gulliford; resident Cynthia Ricks Maccotan; resident Andrew Duane; Bob Drake, owner of Drake Chiropractic; Dennis Worsham, director of the Prevention Division for Public Health – Seattle & King County; Sara Glick, assistant professor for the UW Department of Medicine Division of Allergy & Infectious Diseases and epidemiologist of the HIV/STD Program for Public Health — Seattle & King County; Federal Way Police Cmdr. Casey Jones; South King Fire and Rescue Assistant Chief Gordy Goodsell; and a representative from CHI Franciscan to be decided.

Of the committee members, at least one individual has lived experience with drug addiction and all named members live or work within Federal Way city limits, said Steve McNey, communications and government affairs coordinator of the city.

An amendment made to the resolution requires an update reported back to the city council by June 1.

“The pause right now is to engage in a conversation,” Ferrell said of the SCORE program, adding that the resolution does not permit a permanent removal of the service. “It is more important for us to have a dialogue as community members about what we expect, what we deserve … and then to move forward as a community.”

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Mayor Jim Ferrell and Federal Way City Council members discuss the needle exchange program resolution on Tuesday, April 6.

Screenshot Mayor Jim Ferrell and Federal Way City Council members discuss the needle exchange program resolution on Tuesday, April 6.