Authored by Elliott Redwine, | Medically Reviewed by Dr. Elizabeth Drew, MD
Last Updated: August 22, 2021

Safe injection sites have popped up around the world over the past few years. For those not familiar, a safe injection site is a facility where drug addicts can safely use IV drugs with medical supervision. Ten countries currently allow legal operation of these facilities including Canada, Australia, and multiple countries in Europe.

The first safe injection site in Philadelphia was set to open at the start of this year before the pandemic broke out. A U.S. federal judge approved the launch of a facility in the city at the end of February. The approval was a welcome respite from the legal and social battle that Safehouse, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, has been fighting for the past two years.

Supervised injection facilities are an incredible source of controversy and debate. Health experts, policymakers, rehab facilities, and town residents alike each have a strong opinion. Supporters believe these sites are a safe way to combat the opioid crisis. Proponents insist they only serve to exacerbate the growing drug problem. 

The issue of safe injection sites isn’t clear-cut or straightforward. There are both pros and cons to Philadelphia’s potential safe injection site. What exactly do these facilities entail and how might they help or harm the community?

philly safe injection site

What is a Safe Injection Site?

A safe injection site is a legal, medically-supervised facility for the use of intravenous drugs. They provide a hygienic and secure environment where IV drug users can inject safely. These facilities do not sell or provide any illegal drugs; users bring their own drugs and administer them themselves.

There are a few different names for safe injection sites including: 

  • Overdose prevention centers
  • Medically-supervised injection centers
  • Supervised consumption services
  • Fix rooms

Sites are staffed with medical personnel who provide clean supplies, oversee the injection, and clean up when users are done. Medical staff is also trained in overdose prevention and armed with naloxone, the overdose-reversing medication. They’re prepared to intervene if the need arises.

Safe injection sites don’t exist for the sole purpose of supervised drug use, though. The real goal of these facilities is to combat the fatality of drug addiction. Medical personnel is on hand to prevent users from an accidental overdose, the cause of most drug-related deaths. They’re truly designed to keep users alive long enough to find the help they need.

Injection sites themselves cannot treat individuals battling with addiction. They can only supervise use until the person is ready to get help. Once they’re ready, though, injection sites are prepared to immediately connect users with addiction treatment and other social services.

Pros of Safe Injection Sites

The safe injection site in Philadelphia is not the first overdose prevention facility in the world. Sites like these already exist and operate in Canada, Australia, and various countries throughout Europe. Supporters of safe injection sites explain the many benefits that result from their operation. 

Reduce overdose mortality rates

The number of overdose mortality rates over the past few years is alarming. 67,367 people died of a drug overdose in 2018 alone. Safe injection sites supervise IV drug use which protects users from the possibility of a fatal accidental overdose. 

Reduce HIV and viral hepatitis risk

Sharing or using dirty hypodermic needles puts users at risk of contracting HIV and viral hepatitis. The sterile supplies offered at safe injection sites in Philadelphia eliminate the possibility of catching these infections.

Increase enrollment in treatment and other social services

Safe injection sites not only eliminate the possibility of death due to overdose but increase the chances that a user gets help. Facilities connect users with addiction treatment programs and other life-saving social services they might not usually consider or have access to.

Nonjudgmental environment

The stigma associated with drug use, IV drug use, in particular, causes immense feelings of shame. Safe injection facilities remove the stigma for a moment which may encourage users to finally seek the help they need. 

Improvements to community health and safety

Safe injection sites remove drug use from public spaces like parks and bathrooms. They also reduce the dangerous waste that comes with public drug use, especially the improper disposal of syringes.

Reduce demands on emergency medical services

One of the most important benefits of overdose prevention sites is the reduction of demands on emergency medical services. Emergency medical personnel are often called on when someone accidentally overdoses. Safe injection sites in Philadelphia provide some relief to EMS.

cons of safe injection in philly

Cons of Safe Injection Sites

Alongside the benefits of safe injection sites come some negatives that must be addressed. Critics of Safehouse’s safe injection site in Philadelphia insist that the benefits do not outweigh the disadvantages. 

Potentially encourages IV drug use

Intravenous injection is the most dangerous way to use drugs. Offering a safe place to inject drugs could encourage some users to switch to IV use. Users who switch place themselves at greater risk, especially if they aren’t able to access the safe injection site at some point.

Possible strain on the government budget

Operating safe injection sites may place additional strain on government budgets. Critics insist these facilities are not with the financial investment considering the possible negative impact they have on the surrounding community.

May increase drug-related crime nearby

Since users must bring their own drugs, safe injection sites may increase drug-related crime nearby. Dealers will want to position sellers in the area and it could lead to or encourage potential gang rivalries in the area.

Creates difficulty for policymakers

Despite offering a legal injection site, the drugs used are still illegal. Opening a safe injection site creates a difficult grey area that policymakers must navigate. Critics question how law enforcement is supposed to maintain uniform compliance with drug laws.

Are Safe Injection Sites Effective?

All things considered, the most important question you probably have is, are safe injection sites effective? Regardless of both pros and cons, if they aren’t a helpful tool then there is no need for them. Why open a safe injection site in Philadelphia if it’s not an effective way to combat drug addiction?

Thankfully, many studies look at the existing operations in Vancouver, Sydney, and other locations. Studies show these facilities reduce the likelihood of fatal overdoses over time. They promote safer injections and also increase access to health care, addiction treatment, and other life-saving services. 

Research also shows that safe injection sites are often associated with lower levels of public drug injection and improper syringe disposal. They limit the impact of the public nuisance often left behind by drug addiction. 

Philadelphia’s Safe Injection Site Could Save Lives

There’s no denying the severe impact that drug addiction has in Pennsylvania. The state has some of the highest rates of opioid overdoses in the United States. A safe injection site in Philadelphia could be one step towards combating the devastating effects of addiction.

“Philadelphia, like the nation, is in an overdose crisis,” explained Ronda Goldfein, co-founder and Vice President of Safehouse. “We have the highest death rate of any big city in America.” Her organization insists that the proposed facility will have a positive impact on the addiction epidemic throughout the city. 

Drug overdoses have claimed the lives of more than half a million people in the United States since 2000. Safehouse realizes that something needs to be done and is sure the site is a positive step forward. Jim Kenney, mayor of Philadelphia, publicly supports Safehouse’s plan. He estimates that their facility could save the lives of 25 to 76 people each year. 

Safehouse Opening Derailed by COVID-19

Despite their preparedness to open a facility at the start of the year, COVID-19 derailed those plans. It didn’t do anything to derail the effects of drug addiction, though. Counties across the country saw rates of abuse and overdose skyrocket as shelter-in-place orders sprung up. 

The COVID-19 had a similar effect on Philadelphia, too. Harm reduction advocates insist the pandemic revealed just how great the need for a safe injection site in Philadelphia is. “Every day, we are at risk of an overdose that may occur on the street that would not have occurred inside of a supervised injection facility,” explained Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. 

Safe injection sites keep people from accidentally overdosing while alone on the streets. It’s difficult to open a site under the current circumstances, though. Although they were approved in February, Safehouse likely will not open for the time being. A safe injection site in Philadelphia will, once again, have to wait.

Finding Help After Safehouse

Safe injection sites in Philadelphia are a harm reduction measure for opioid abuse but not a solution. Addiction treatment facilities are the way to escape the cycle of addiction that IV drug users are trapped in. Connecting users with drug rehab is a vital part of reducing the impact of addiction throughout Philadelphia.

Are you trying to stop using drugs? Peace Valley Recovery is an addiction recovery center near Philadelphia. We provide premier alcohol and drug rehab for those who need help. Whether it’s your first time trying to stop or you’ve attempted to quit before, we are here for you. Reach out now to discover how you can find the path to recovery at Peace Valley today!

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