Are Safe Injection Sites Helping or Hurting Those with Addiction?

September 24th, 2019

Opioids have impacted the United States from coast to coast, posing a deadly threat to people of all ages. Declared a public health emergency in 2017 by The US Department of Health and Human Services, the opioid crisis has affected over 11 million people in the United States. Drug overdoses led to over 70,000 deaths in 2017 alone. Lawmakers from communities across the country have been exploring many ways to curb the epidemic. One proposed solution that has been popularized worldwide is the introduction of safe injection sites into communities most impacted by the opioid crisis. Despite their popularity overseas, safe injection sites are a controversial solution to diminishing the impact of opioids on the United States population. 

Let’s look more into what safe injection sites are and if they are helping, or even hurting those with addiction. 

What Are Safe Injection Sites?

First popularized in Australia, safe injection sites are centers that allow people to consume pre-obtained drugs in a safe, sterile environment under the supervision of medically trained staff members. These sites provide an environment where people are monitored and protected in the event of an overdose, as well as, provided with sterile injection equipment. The ultimate goal of safe injection sites is to decrease the number of overdose deaths and the spread of diseases that can accompany illicit drug abuse. The unique part of safe injection sites is that they provide several services to those using their facilities to safely inject drugs. 

These services include:

  • Medical Supervision and Equipment: Safe injection sites are staffed with trained medical professionals who monitor the injections of those who come into the centers. Their supervision makes sure each person is safe and that they can provide treatment promptly in the case of an overdose. Sites are generally equipped with overdose-reversal medication that can save one’s life in the event of an overdose.
  • Sterile Supplies: Sites provide sterile injection equipment such as syringes, cookers, and tourniquets to clients to help prevent the spread of disease via the used injection equipment that is often prevalent in the streets. By providing sterile equipment and safely disposing of used syringes, safe injection sites hope to deter the number of public disposals that occur. Staff at safe injection sites never handle the drugs or help clients with injections.
  • A Secure, Legal Environment: An important part of safe injection sites is that they are environments where clients are visible to staff to prevent overdose from happening. Sites are legally sanctioned, which exempts clients from prosecution for possession or use of illicit drugs at the site. Additionally, the sale of illicit drugs on the premises of safe injection sites is prohibited to prevent the spread of drug trafficking.
  • Primary Care Services: On top of providing a safe, sterile space to inject illicit drugs many sites also provide services that can be important for those who regularly use illicit drugs can benefit from. These services can include HIV and AIDS testing, immunizations and wound care. Additionally, sites might also direct clients towards detox or rehab centers if they desire such help.

Where Are Safe Injection Sites?

Worldwide there are currently about 100 safe injection sites, however, the majority are in Europe and Australia. In North America, Vancouver is the only city to have a safe injection site. Currently, there are no legally sanctioned safe injection sites operating in the United States. As many as a dozen US cities have explored the viability of opening a safe injection site. Cities such as San Francisco, Boston, and Seattle, which have all felt the impact of the opioid crisis, have explored the option of opening safe injection sites to curtail drug overdoses. Several legal obstacles prevent safe injection sites from currently operating in the United States.

What Are The Benefits of Safe Injection Sites? 

A large variety of studies have been conducted on safe injection sites and their effectiveness in curbing the number of deaths related to drug overdoses. The main proposed benefit of safe injection sites is the ability to prevent overdose deaths. Currently, no overdose deaths have been reported at safe injection sites. Some other benefits that safe injection sites are giving those with addiction a safe place to use off the street to help prevent both overdoses but also preventing the spread of disease by limiting the prevalence of used syringes. Additionally, studies have shown that safe injection sites can provide those with addiction health services that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Some studies have also proposed that safe injection sites could save cities money by reducing health care costs associated with addiction and overdoses. However, there is debate over how much would be saved if implemented in US cities.

What Are The Drawbacks of Safe Injection Sites?

Despite the number of proposed benefits of safe injection site, there is still controversy surrounding safe injection sites. Studies have presented some drawbacks surrounding safe injection sites, the culture they may continue to foster and if they do help addicts. A main concern surrounding sites is that they might promote drug use by not enforcing the laws on illicit drug use and providing a space to exclusively use illicit drugs. Despite zero overdose deaths occurring in safe injection sites, several studies dispute the effectiveness in lowering the number of those who abuse illicit drugs. While they may be less likely to overdose, it is still unsure whether clients will be less likely to use illicit drugs when going to a safe injection site. 

Currently, safe injection sites are not legally allowed in the United States and the exact effect they may have on those who struggle with addiction is still unknown. However, despite both the proposed benefits and drawbacks of safe injection sites, it is best to remember if you need help with substance abuse it is best to seek out medical help and find what services are available to help you.