Will California Open the Door for Safe Injection Sites in the U.S. ?

safe injection

Supervised injection sites are medically approved hygienic facilities where drug users can find a safe haven to consume illicit recreational drugs intravenously. These sites are part of a harm reduction approach to drug addiction. Supervised consumption sites are designed to “reduce the health and public order issues often associated with public drug consumption”. The sites can go by various names: “Supervised consumption services (SCS), overdose prevention centers, safe or supervised injection facilities (SIFs), and drug consumption rooms (DCRs)”.

“Facility staff members do not directly assist in consumption or handle any drugs brought in by clients, but are present to provide sterile injection supplies, answer questions on safe injection practices, administer first aid if needed, and monitor for overdose. This is particularly pertinent to fentanyl because the onset of overdose is rapid and waiting for an ambulance may mean death or permanent brain damage due to lack of oxygen. SCS staff also offer general medical advice and referrals to drug treatment, medical treatment, and other social support programs.” 

“There are approximately 120 SCS currently operating in ten countries around the world (Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Switzerland) – but none in the U.S. SCSs can play a vital role as part of a larger public health approach to drug policy. They are intended to complement – not replace – existing prevention, harm reduction, and treatment interventions.” https://drugpolicy.org/issues/supervised-consumption-services

Now California may change that in the United States. A proposal that passed the California state Senate on April 29 would give opioid users a safe place to inject drugs under the watchful eye of trained staff. This harm reduction approach and alternative to arrest would allow for programs in Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles counties. 

“Instead of putting opioid-users in jail, a proposal moving through the California Legislature would give them a place to inject drugs while trained staff watch them to make sure they don’t die from accidental overdoses.”

“The state Senate passed a bill on Thursday by just one vote that would allow the programs in Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles County. But the bill must still pass the state Assembly before it can go to Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who would decide whether to sign it into law.”

The purpose of the sites are not to encourage drug use but to keep the user safe from overdose and death and to try to get them into treatment programs. Withdrawal makes users very sick and the cycle of addiction continues even when a user wants to stop. Overdoses have surged in recent years which have prompted legislators to tackle the question of how best to deal with “a problem that is rooted is public health and public safety”. Clearly drug addiction is not a criminal justice issue and sadly it has affected people of color disportionately. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/news/2017/06/12/433998/substance-use-disorder-public-health-issue-not-criminal-justice-issue/


The Trump Administration sued to block a proposed injection site in Philadelphia and the federal court of appeals sided with the former administration in January. Now that decision is being appealed in hopes that the Biden administration will be more forward thinking and drop the lawsuit. 

“Unlike the Trump administration, President Biden takes a science-based approach to addiction,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco who authored the California legislation. “We hope the administration will allow states to pilot evidence-based strategies like safe consumption sites.”

“In California, 45% of drug overdose deaths involved opioids in 2018, resulting in more than 2,400 deaths, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.”

“In the period between 2012 and 2018 prescription painkillers accounted for half the deaths but the biggest increase was in heroin overdoses and fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, accounted for an 800% increase in overdoses deaths”.

“Forcing people to use drugs on our streets doesn’t make anyone safer,” Wiener said. “Let’s, instead, take a public health approach to drug use, with trained professionals who can provide clean supplies, overdose prevention medication, and access to drug treatment programs.”

Not surprisingly no Republican voted for the bill and disappointedly two Democrats also voted against the bill. 

“The Senate Republican Caucus said in a statement that the bill would “establish taxpayer-staffed and funded drug dens.”

“This is like giving a person struggling with alcoholism a gift card to BevMo,” state Senate Republican Leader Scott Wilk said. “There is zero consideration for the neighborhoods in which these sites will operate, the victims of crimes resulting from addicts roaming the streets, or the families of individuals struggling with addiction who are praying their loved one gets treatment rather than drugs.”

The stigma of treating drug dependent people like criminals is the crux of the Republican problem. This is a health issue – a public health issue – and not a criminal justice issue. 

These same Republicans hold on tight to the second amendment right to buy guns and then people who should never own a gun go out and shoot up nail salons, nightclubs, and schools. That is a public health issue as well: if there was a mental health background check then those individuals would never have had access and people would never have died. The Republicans are very quick to grant access when access should not be granted and deny access when access should be granted. 

The bill would require the workers at the sites to try to get help for the people coming in and get them into drug treatment programs or get them the mental health treatment they need. 

“The California bill would require workers at the so-called “safe injection sites” to try to help these people by getting them into drug treatment programs or referring them to mental health care, social services programs and primary medical care.”

The point is there would be a lifeline and that is what the safe injection site provides – a place where someone who is addicted can go and not be judged, but be given the option of help, or at least feel safe in the moment. Why not vote to help a human in need of care?

Author: Sherri Margolin (Dark Matters)

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