Among the worst and most consequential policy decisions we’ve ever made as a nation was choosing to treat drug addiction as a crime. The stigmatization and criminalization of what is essentially a medical problem has cost us many billions of dollars and destroyed many thousands of lives. Human frailty and/or desperation, resulting in the use of drugs such as opioids like heroin has been met with contempt, demonization, incarceration and general cruelty for too long. It’s time we stop punishing people who need help, and actually help them instead.
One of the best ways to stop the unnecessary suffering and death we see in today’s opioid crisis is to legalize, fund and establish safe injection sites.
Currently, people often find themselves in trouble because they deal with chronic pain by using legal opioids prescribed by their doctor. These opioids are highly addictive and soon users are hooked. But eventually the prescription runs out, and addiction treatment is unavailable or unaffordable. So, users go to the streets, where they find narcotics without knowing how potent, or pure they are. For example, heroin may be cut with Fentanyl, which is 100 times more potent than heroin. As a result, we are rapidly approaching 3,000 people dying of overdoses annually in Pennsylvania, and almost 65,000 Americans dying per year. This is more lives lost in one year than in the entire Vietnam War.
At a safe injection site, addicts can acquire pre-measured drugs, and they can know exactly what is in their fix and how potent it is. This will dramatically reduce overdose deaths. Further, there will be trained medical personnel on site to administer Naloxone or whatever overdose remediation might be needed. The outcomes in other countries already doing this render our current policy all the more heartbreaking. In over one million injections at 90 safe injection sites around the world, there has NOT BEEN ONE fatal overdose. Compare that to the epidemic of death we see with our indefensible “tough on drugs” approach.
Further, upon receiving a supervised fix, the user will be offered treatment options. In Germany, 45% of users at safe injection sites sought treatment. This is a far higher percentage than those who used on the streets. There are additional benefits, such as an end to addicts sharing dirty needles, spreading dangerous diseases such as hepatitis or AIDS.
The main argument against safe injection sites seems to be that they will “send the wrong message” to addicts, and “encourage” them to use drugs. But this argument misapprehends the nature and roots of addiction. There is no evidence that anybody is going to start using dangerous drugs because they were “encouraged” to by the existence of a safe injection site. And those who are addicted need to have their lives valued and protected, not the wagging-finger of condemnation. That approach has been tried for decades, and it is an abject failure, as all of the caskets being lowered into the ground prove. We can do better. And now, we know how.