Safe injection sites have been the source of serious controversy and concern throughout the last few years. While countries around the world have offered various iterations of safe injection sites since the early 1970s, they’ve only recently made their way into widespread public knowledge.
The newly opened safe injection site in New York added the United States to the list of countries that offer legal, sanctioned safe injection sites. After a near successful attempt to open a safe injection site in Philadelphia was shut down in February 2020, New York’s site is a welcome relief for those who support these harm reduction efforts.
Safe injection sites are not a straightforward solution to substance abuse, though. While they aim to combat the accelerating overdose rates in the United States, they are only one of many options. These facilities come with a range of both positive and negative consequences.
What does New York City hope to accomplish with its new safe injection sites? How will they affect those struggling with substance abuse as well as the city as a whole? And are there more effective alternatives in New York City to treat substance use disorder?
What is a Safe Injection Site?
Safe injection sites are facilities where people who use illicit drugs can do so legally under medical supervision. While facilities do not provide the substances themselves, they do offer clean supplies to use them, such as sterile hypodermic needles. Staff at these sites monitor people during use and administer overdose-reversing treatment when necessary.
Safe injection sites are known by a few different names including:
- Overdose prevention centers
- Supervised injection sites
- Medically-supervised injection centers
- Supervised consumption sites
- Fix rooms
- Shooting galleries
These sites don’t only exist to supervise intravenous drug use, though. Overdose prevention centers exist primarily to fight drug addiction. They are designed to keep those who use illicit drugs alive long enough to reach the point that they’re ready to get help. These facilities are ready to connect people with life-saving addiction treatment programs the moment they want to stop.
The Detrimental Impact of Drug Addiction
Rates of drug abuse, substance use disorder, and drug overdoses have grown steadily in the United States over the past few decades. Opioids, including prescription opioids, heroin, and fentanyl, have been responsible for the astronomical increase in fatal overdoses since 2013.
A grim report from the CDC estimates that more than 100,000 people in the U.S. lost their lives to drug overdoses between April 2020 and April 2021. This is the first time that fatal overdoses have claimed more than 100,000 lives in a single year. When you consider the previous data showing almost 500,000 lives lost to overdoses between 1999 and 2019, this past year’s statistics become even more sobering.
The numbers in New York City are no better. More than 2,000 people died from a drug overdose in New York City in 2020. 48 per 100,000 residents in the Bronx lost their lives to an overdose. In Staten Island, drugs claimed the lives of 37 people per 100,000. As of November, 198 residents in New York City overdosed this year, with 72 of those ending fatally.
Safe Injection Sites are New York City’s Newest Harm Reduction Strategy
It’s clear that something needs to be done to address the deadly drug epidemic in New York City. Harm reduction activists insist that safe injection sites are a step in the right direction toward this solution. At the end of November, Mayor Bill de Blasio approved the opening of two overdose prevention centers, one in Washington Heights and one in East Harlem.
“After exhaustive study, we know the right path forward to protect the most vulnerable people in our city. And we will not hesitate to take it,” de Blasio said of his approving the sites. The record number of deaths due to drug overdose last year pushed city officials to approve the overdose prevention centers.
At the same time, other officials are hesitant about opening the facilities. “While thinking outside the box is necessary to finding solutions for the opioid epidemic,” said District Attorney Mike McMahon, “I believe creating supervised injection sites undermines prevention and treatment efforts, and only serves to normalize the use of these deadly drugs.”
Still, the facilities opened under the supervision of New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Choski at the start of December. He’s adamant that OPCs serve as one part of the greater harm reduction strategy. The New York City Health Department reports that the centers have prevented at least 59 overdoses during the first few weeks of opening.
Benefits of Safe Injection Sites
New York City’s safe injection site is not the first of its kind; existing sites operate in Canada, Australia, and some countries in Europe. Some of the benefits that overdose prevention centers provide include:
- Reduced public drug use: Safe injection sites remove some of the drug use that occurs in public locations like bathrooms, parks, and sidewalks
- Reduced transmission of diseases: By providing clean supplies for people who use drugs intravenously, these sites reduce the transmission of diseases like HIV and viral hepatitis
- Reduced fatal overdoses: Having medical staff on-site and supervising use allows them to intervene and provide life-saving treatment in the event of an overdose
- Increased access to treatment programs: Safe injection sites connect people with addiction treatment programs they may not otherwise find once they are ready to stop
Drawbacks of Safe Injection Sites
Despite the benefits of safe injection sites, they aren’t a catch-all solution to the problem. These sites also come with some drawbacks that keep people from supporting their opening, such as:
- Potentially encourages IV drug use: Intravenous drug use is the most dangerous way to use drugs; offering a safe place for IV use may encourage some people to switch to IV use
- Places strain on public funds: Safe injection sites often operate with at least some form of support from government funding, taking these funds away from other avenues
- May increase nearby drug-related crime: Since the sites do not offer substances, dealers may take up space to sell drugs near the centers, increasing the drug-related crime
- Creates difficulties for policymakers: Drugs used at safe injection sites are still illegal which makes it complicated for policymakers to enforce laws surrounding drug use
Alternative Solutions for Substance Dependence
While safe injection sites may be an effective tool in the fight against the New York City drug epidemic, they don’t provide a lasting remedy. People who are ready to quit using drugs must seek a more permanent solution. Thankfully, addiction treatment serves as a more effective next step once someone is ready to stop using substances.
Addiction treatment programs like those offered at Peace Valley Recovery help individuals learn to live life drug-free. We develop individualized treatment plans that consider the needs of every client in our program. Through a combination of therapeutic approaches, we equip each person with the tools and skills necessary for fulfilling long-term recovery.
If you live in New York City and are struggling with your substance use, we would love to talk with you about your options. Located only a short ride outside the city, Peace Valley Recovery offers a tranquil environment where you can focus on your recovery and rebuilding your life. Reach out to us to speak with an admissions specialist and learn more about the programs we offer here at Peace Valley today!