Safe Injection Facilities on the Rise?
New York City just opened the first sanctioned Safe Injection Facilities in December. A safe injection facility provides needles and a space for addicts to inject their drugs in a safe environment. The addicts bring their own drugs to the facilities; the facilities provide sterile needles but not drugs. Trained staff are available to administer naloxone in the event of overdose. The facilities also provide referrals to drug treatment programs and counseling. In the first day of operation over 70 people used the facilities to inject drugs, and staff reversed two overdoses at the facilities.
Safe Injection Facilities are a component of the harm reduction movement. Harm reduction is an approach to drug use that acknowledges that people will use drugs, and finds ways to minimize overdose deaths and some of the worst collateral health effects such as from using dirty needles. Harm reduction programs believe that people do not deserve to die just because they are drug users.
State and Federal Support
To state the obvious, safe injection facilities are controversial. The drugs that people use in these facilities are illegal to possess and to sell. What makes the newly opened New York facilities unique is they have the authorization from the city to operate, and assurance from the local district attorneys that they will not prosecute the facilities or the people using the facilities. Philadelphia tried to start a safe injection facility but was deterred by legal action from the Federal Justice Dept. under former president Trump. (It is a federal crime to operate a facility for the purpose of using illegal drugs.) The Biden administration has declared its support for harm reduction programs, but the Biden administration and the Justice Department have not yet made any statements regarding the New York facilities.
States to Follow
The momentum to expand harm reduction programs to include safe injection facilities is growing. Other cities are watching what happens in New York. And Rhode Island recently passed a law to establish a two-year pilot program of safe injection facilities, the first state to do so. Canada has had safe injection facilities for several years, as have some European countries, so the idea is not new or novel.
The most compelling reason the New York facilities were started, and that other cities and states are considering safe injection facilities, is the recent tsunami of opioid overdose deaths. The latest count is 100,000 opioid overdoses from April ’20 to April ’21, the highest number of opioid deaths ever in a one-year period.
Harm reduction programs in general can be a difficult sell because they do not discourage drug use – they try to make drug use safer. Opponents of harm reduction programs see them as encouraging drug use. Harm reduction programs acknowledge the reality that despite all the efforts to date to discourage drug use, people continue to use illegal drugs. We are on the side of harm reduction: we believe that no person should die because they are a drug user.