To many it sounds counterproductive, a place for people addicted to drugs to go and safely shoot up with clean needles and nurse supervision, but safe injection sites help decrease the number of overdoses and the spread of diseases such as Hepatitis and AIDS in the intravenous drug users communities for the past 30 years.
There are over 100 safe use sites operating in nine countries around the world, Switzerland opened the first one in 1986 and Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg, Spain, Denmark, Australia and Canada followed suit. The first North American supervised injection site, opened in Vancouver, Canada in 2003. Within two years overdose deaths dropped by 3, according to The Drug Policy Alliance.
Vancouver's InSite program, exempt from federal drug laws, is located in a downtown building where drug users have access to 12 private booths to inject drugs such as heroin or cocaine. In 2016 over 5,000 users were referred to other social/health services. InSite also intervened in over 1,000 overdoses, which could have been fatalities without the site’s services.
The United States could be the next to open up safe injection sites to fight the opiate epidemic. Seattle Washington officials approved the nation’s first site in January 2017 in a unanimous vote of the King County Board of Health. Boston, New York City, San Francisco and Baltimore are among the other U.S cities exploring this option.
Seattle Ex-Mayor Ed Murray believed this was a necessary step in reducing deaths in the state of Washington. “These sites save lives and that is our goal in King County,” Murray said in a statement. Although there is no funding for these sites yet, two were approved in both Seattle and King County. King County Board of Health voted on the safe use sites and King County Executive Dow Constantine and Mayor Ed Murray gave them final approval. Funding for these sites is still unknown.
Their status as illegal under the Controlled Substance Actdoesn't worry King County Sheriff John Urquhart, who said his deputies will not be arresting anyone, and Murray, who hopes to see the sites opening within a year.
It is unclear how Seattle will proceed after the resignation of Mayor Ed Murray in the beginning of September. The mayor's office could not be reached for comment at this time.
In Massachusetts Senator William Brownsberger recently proposed a bill for safe sites in Boston that is currently under review. The Senator strongly believes that, “Safe injection facilities are one possible tool we have to try to stop the deaths from fentanyl. Whether we can get one running in Massachusetts and whether it would work as we might hope remains to be seen.”
While many people are against these sites, Dr. Jessica Gaeta, chief medical officer at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless, is promoting a similar way to aid in the fight against the opiate epidemic.
Last March, Gaeta initiated a program that she calls a “safe place.” Health Care for the Homeless,’ which opened in April. This facility has chairs where addicts can sit while a nurse monitors vital signs. They can also administers Naloxone in case of an overdose. Gaeta said 400 people have used the facility and about 10 percent of them have gone directly from the room into treatment. Healthcare for the Homeless has an annual budget of approximately $50 million, about 75 percent of that comes from third party reimbursements from MassHealth, Medicare and Health Safety Net.
The difference between Gaeta’s room is that patients are not be permitted to get high on site, making it less taboo and more in line with federal laws. Massachusetts is in dire need of a new approach considering the 1,990 confirmed opiate related deaths in 2016, according to the Department of Public Health.
In the neighboring state of New York, The New York Daily News reported that the City Council approved $100,000 to study whether or not to set up safe sites. The $100,000 comes from a $5.6 million budget the city currently has in place to fight against AIDS.
According to New York Daily News, the funding was approved by the City Council in September 2016. The study will be run by the Health Department, and will look at the feasibility of NYC having a safe use site. The study will also study if this sort of approach “will help prevent drug overdoses and disease transmissions,” said Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (to the News, or you?).
Bertha Madras, deputy director of demand reduction for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy called safe use sites a form of giving up and is not alone in her opposition. Protect Public Health, a nonprofit group based in Washington, filed a complaint in King County opposing the use of safe sites.
Safe-use sites are an important key to the harm reduction method. It is something that needs to be considered in the U.S when dealing with addiction if we want to see the jolting number of overdoses go down during this public health crisis.