With the opioid crisis hitting an all-time high, certain cities in the US are revisiting a controversial idea to help curb the rising epidemic. Safe injection sites exist in many countries in Europe and Canada and they all boast success in lower HIV rates and overdose deaths. Even with these statistics dropping due to these facilities, many still feel these safe injection sites are doing more harm than good.
Heroin use in the United States has jumped dramatically from the early 2000’s, CNN noted, with a 135% increase in users. The more alarming number, however, is the 533% increase in heroin overdoses with the number going up from 2,000 to over 13,000 between 2002 and 2016. These dramatic numbers have caused cities like San Francisco and Seattle to propose the possibility of opening safe injection sites. These sites would allow a safe space for intravenous drug use supervised by a medical team. The purpose is to take heroin users off the streets and ensure they have access to sterile injection equipment, healthcare and information on drug treatment options.
The first injection site in North America opened in 2003 in Vancouver, Canada. With an HIV crisis, increase in overdoses and deaths, Vancouver made the decision to invest in a safe injection site and follow suit to Europe’s successes. Since its opening they have never had a heroin related death. Just last year they intervened in over 200 overdoses, medically assisting the addict with oxygen and lifesaving drugs in order to stabilize and save them. Mark Lysyshyn, Vancouver’s Medical Health Officer, spoke about what this facility has done for the immediate community.
“It’s had a lot of benefits in what you would call ‘community order’—there has been less crime in the area, less needles, less injection. We had a real epidemic of HIV among the drug-using community in that area and those rates have really plummeted.”
But even with 14 years of measured success, these injection sites have yet to come to the US.
A large challenge in facilitating these injection sites in the US is the challenge to federal drug control. Shortly after Vancouver opened the injection site they went to court over the federal government’s oversight of the facility as well as not being exempt from Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. It was eventually ruled by the Supreme Court that the health and wellness of citizens is up to the provinces to decide. The ruling allowed the injection site to continue operation. However, this legal battle is often compared to the issues US cities would experience in attempting to legalize these sites.
Another issue is the concern that these facilities encourage opioid use. Many opponents of these sites feel that they are enabling drug users and forcing these locations upon communities that don’t want them there. Some argue that addicts make the personal choice to do drugs and that these facilities shouldn’t be allowed to operate because of that. Furthermore, opponents say the money to fund these sites could be better spent on drug addiction rehabs and other treatment options.
With all of the controversy surrounding the possibility of these safe injection sites coming to the United States, Europe has measured their success for years. Currently, there are 100 injection sites among nine European countries. Germany and Switzerland specifically, have created facilities that not only offer safe injections but use that as a catalyst toward treatment and recovery.
In 2007 both countries noted that 40% of the addicts they saw achieved recovery because of referrals to detox centers. Studies have shown that people who are recovering from a heroin addiction using the facilities were not negatively affected by them, in fact being surrounded by people with similar issues increased their personal success. Many have also commented on the safety these sites provide. Many addicts have been victims of sexual assault, rape and violence from using on the streets, in addition to the real risk of arrest. The injection sites make for a safe place for addicts, while properly disposing of syringes and ensuring safe use of the drug.
With overdoses at a critical high it is apparent that current drug laws are no longer effective means of fixing this problem. Though this issue will take more consideration before US cities see injection sites, other countries are successfully combating drug use, HIV transmittals and improper needle disposal. It isn’t just about heroin addiction though: it’s about challenging the stigma behind addicts and safe drug use is the first step in moving forward with fixing this issue and saving lives.