Can Safe Consumption End America’s Overdose Epidemic?
The country’s first legal supervised consumption site opened its doors in New York City last November (NYTimes). A safe consumption site is a place where people who use drugs can safely inject their drugs under the supervision of people who are trained to respond to an overdose. Advocates for safer drug policy have been fighting for this for quite some time. Philadelphia was initially going to open the first, but this was blocked by a federal court that cited a 1986 federal law that is affectionately nicknamed the “crack house” statute (NPR).
Some argue that safe consumption sites enable drug use. But proponents of safe consumption point out say that it actually keeps people already using use drugs alive. Studies have found that safe consumption sites don’t lead to people becoming drug users, but they dramatically reduce fatal overdoses and increase the number of people who start addiction treatment (NPR).
The principle of safe consumption is simple. People who use drugs have access to a safe, clean space to inject their drugs. They are provided with clean syringes and sterile equipment and are watched by a team of people who are trained to respond to an overdose with the overdose reversal agent Narcan. One site has operated in Vancouver, BC since 2003. At this facility, staff have reversed over 6000 overdoses while offering access to including detox and rehab services and stopping discarded syringes from posing a risk to others (VCH).
Less money was spent on hospital admissions for ailments commonly experienced by people who use drugs intravenously (NCBI).
Safe injection sites already operate in the United States, but they’re forced to operate clandestinely. Volunteers risk arrest, prosecution, and incarceration in order to save lives. Underground safe injection sights also overdose mortality, infectious disease risk, and even reduce drug use due to the ability to refer individuals to treatment and social services (NEJM).
As the drug supply has become increasingly saturated with fentanyl, the overdose crisis in the United States has become a terrifying public health crisis. The CDC reported a record number of drug overdoses last year — over 100,000 (CDC). Black Americans are often overlooked when discussing the crisis, though they are now dying of opioid overdoses at a higher rate than white Americans (NPR). However, all people who use drugs are marginalized and individuals who use drugs intravenously are a particularly vulnerable population.
The stigma associated with injection drug use has marginalized individuals, forced them into unsafe habits, and puts them at risk of disease, incarceration, and death. The sooner things change, the fewer lives will be lost.
Last year, two states passed legislation opening up the doors to more legal safe consumption sites. Rhode Island was the first state to explicitly legalize safe consumption (Brown Daily Herald). A promising bill legalizing safe consumption sites is currently held up in a California Assembly committee (SF Weekly). Safe consumption sites enable individuals who use drugs to have healthy lives and a connection to healthcare services. We all need to support efforts to legalize safe consumption sites and replace incarceration and state violence with harm reduction and care. As long as they remain illegal, volunteers will continue to risk their freedom to save lives at underground safe consumption sites. They all deserve our gratitude and support.
• New York recently legalized a safe injection site for people who use drugs to safely consume drugs in the presence of individuals who are trained to respond to overdoses.
• Data from other sites operating elsewhere in the world suggests that these sites reduce mortality associated with overdose and connect people who need drugs to needed services.
• Injection drug use is heavily stigmatized, leading to poor health outcomes for people who use drugs intravenously.