Are safe injection sites the future?
They could be the next policy to help wind down the war on drugs in the U.S.
It’s been almost two decades since a group of homeless individuals in Vancouver organized to create a more secure space where they could safely shoot up away from the public eye. Since that time, their new designated programs — safe or supervised injection sites — have spread across European and other Canadian cities, effectively reducing overdose deaths and lowering addiction rates in their path. Essentially, by allowing individuals to safely use their own drugs under professional medical supervision, the measure has had positive effects even beyond those directly impacted — including reducing public drug use, increasing life expectancy and possibly lowering crime rates.
But during a time of unprecedented overdose deaths, experienced as the opioid crisis in the U.S., the country to block implementation of this alternative is the one that may need it most.
During the Trump presidency, the U.S., a country with a public health crisis that has only worsened during the covid-19 pandemic, had prevented the alternative health measure from cropping up in places like San Francisco and Philadelphia. The federal blockages were occurring as the country was losing more people to drug overdoses than to the Vietnam war.
And those blockages were emphatic. A few years prior, former Attorney General Rod Rosenstein promised to shut down any safe injection site, as it violates the crack house statute, a policy born in the 1980s to prevent lending property to those using, distributing, storing or manufacturing controlled substances.
Still, while that law, passed during a high-point of the war on drugs, and is still in effect, it may not stop safe injection sites from eventually becoming future U.S. policy.
Cities like Denver, New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Philadelphia and several states including Vermont and Massachusetts are now attempting to open safe injection sites to prevent drug overdoses, slow addiction rates, and ameliorate the opioid pandemic. Their actions come amid waves of states legalizing marijuana each year, and as Americans continue shifting toward a pro-drug culture. A 2019 Pew Research poll found that fewer than 10 percent of Americans want marijuana to be illegal. What’s more, this past election cycle, hallucinogenic mushrooms were decriminalized in several cities, as they are becoming increasingly popular in mainstream culture and recognizable journalists continue writing about the topic. The trend has even been highlighted on the global scale, as former secretary-general for the United Nations Kofi Annan supported legalizing all drugs due to the unintended consequences that have risen from punitive restrictions against drug use, including violence, murder, drug and human trafficking and hyper-incarceration. The accumulation of these elements means the legacy of policies and cultural practices initiated at the onset of the War on Drugs may be quaking.
To be sure, despite all the excitement emboldening pro-drug stances and initiatives to use treatment rather than punishment for drug users, there still remains lingering questions as to whether safe injection sites will prevail in the U.S. as the Biden Administration has not published its official stance on the drug sites, and appears to be against politically easier positions like legalizing marijuana. It remains unknown what will become of these publicly funded or privately run agencies that prioritize medical supervision over prison sentences.
What’s more, even without Trump occupying the White House, problems could still arise in localities pushing for the alternative drug program. Notably, it wasn’t federal agents that most recently halted an attempted implementation of a safe injection site. Neighbors of the possible site in Philadelphia, Safehouse, stopped its opening as people expressed fears of drug users denigrating their neighborhood with alleged claims of higher rates of drugs and crime use. Those calls, deeply prevalent during the height of the War on Drugs and steeped in classist and racist coded language, yield questions about whether America is ready to embrace a new set of drug policies even as criticism of War on Drugs policies rise and the public modifies its lens on recreational drug use and the causes of drug abuse.
Still, interest in safe injection sites among large city and coastal residents is noteworthy, and will possibly pave the way for a new policy to help reduce overdose deaths and favor treatment over punishment.