King County is not immune to the opioid epidemic that has swept across our country. I believe that we should approach this epidemic as a public health crisis, rather than a criminal crisis. The American Medical Association, as well as many other medical experts, classify drug addiction as a disease—it’s time to treat this epidemic with the proper response and help those suffering from addiction instead of punishing them with time in prison.
A comprehensive public-health approach will require other government agencies to implement the measures proposed by the Seattle and King County Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force, which includes prevention through education and awareness campaigns, provision of treatment on demand by making buprenorphine more accessible, and reducing the number of fatal overdoses by distributing naloxone kits and establishing safe consumption sites which reduce fatal overdose risk and begin the process of engaging drug users with a continuum of care. I voiced my support for these sites last year and I am fully prepared to use my office to meet legal challenges to these sites and continue to support what doctors think is the most effective solution.
I was an original sponsor of the flagship Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, in partnership with the Seattle Police Department, King County Sheriff, other elected officials, civil rights leaders and neighborhood public safety advocates. LEAD is a community-based diversion program that has allowed law enforcement to direct people engaged in low-level drug activity into evidence-based intensive wrap-around services, rather than prosecution and jail. LEAD works with people for whom nothing else has been successful, reducing recidivism by 60% at a lower cost than the traditional justice system. Police and prosecutors coordinate long-term with case managers to ensure that, at every turn, we’re engaging with LEAD participants in a way that is most likely to actually change behavior and improve their situation and public safety.
Our LEAD program, the first of its kind in the nation, was featured at a symposium at the Obama White House in 2015. LEAD has since become a model for addressing the root problems associated with drug addiction nationwide, replicated in dozens of jurisdictions including Denver, New Orleans, Baltimore, Los Angeles and Houston. Seattle Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal endorsed the LEAD program as an alternative to the failed War on Drugs and received rare bipartisan support in Congress.
The University of Washington evaluated the program and found that it is working well. The report, published in a peer-reviewed journal, found that those who have received a LEAD referral are 58% less likely to be arrested again than those who did not. It also found that those involved in the program are significantly more likely to find housing, employment, and a legitimate income than those not involved. LEAD is part of our efforts to reduce racial disproportionality in the criminal justice system. Where before, about 50% of arrests for drug-related crimes were of African Americans, now about 50% of the people whom LEAD is helping to stay out of the traditional justice system are African American.
I believe it is critical to continue the expansion of the LEAD program to the rest of Seattle and King County. The program is achieving its goal to provide care to many who have fallen victim to drug addiction, reducing their future interactions with the criminal justice system as a result.
In addition, I have worked with King County Executive Dow Constantine to file suit against pharmaceutical companies for their role in distributing the prescription opioids that have so devastatingly contributed to this epidemic. The companies who profited from their own reckless behavior must be held accountable to pay the price of recovery.