What are safe injection sites?
People suffering from drug addiction are at high risk of overdose as well as HIV and other blood borne diseases. In 2018, over 67,000 people died from drug overdose and almost 5,000 died after being diagnosed with HIV. Unfortunately, these people often don’t have the resources to get the help they need. They also don’t have a way to safely dispose of their needles or reverse an accidental overdose, should one occur. Safe injection sites are working to change that. They offer:
- a safe, consequence-free facility in which drug users can have access to clean needles, reducing the spread of HIV
- Naloxone, the life-saving overdose reversal treatment that has saved more than 26,000 lives to date.
- Medical outreach services, which prompt conversations about treatment programs and the effects of substance abuse
- Staff trained in overdose prevention, injection technique, harm reduction methods, and the administration of Naloxone, all practices that save lives.
With the resources provided at safe injection sites and the funding and legislation for them to be able to open around the country, the number of deaths related to addiction would go down significantly.
What are the benefits?
In one study by UC San Diego medical sociologist Peter Davidson and RTI International epidemiologist Alex Kral, the benefits of one safe injection site were objectively documented. Davidson and Kral found that:
- 80.5% of visitors identified as currently homeless;
- 92.2% said they would have injected in a public place if it were not for the safe injection site;
- 64.7% had disposed of a syringe in a public place in the past 30 days;
- 25.7% had witnessed an overdose not at the site in the past 30 days, while 6.6% had an experienced one;
- 9% had used an unsterile syringe in the past 30 days, potentially exposing themselves to HIV, hepatitis C and other blood-borne diseases;
- 83.9% said they always or often were rushed during the injection process, something that can lead to infection and increased risk of overdose;
- and 75.9% had had contact with the police in the past 30 days.
The observed safe injection site had virtually eliminated the risk of overdose while onsite. Only 2 overdoses occurred out of 2574 injections over the two years during which the study was conducted, both of which were successfully reversed using Naloxone. Nobody was exposed to blood-borne diseases through the use of unsanitary needles, and the site safely disposed of over 1,700 used syringes.
Another, more popular site in Vancouver, Canada has supervised almost 4 million injections, intervened in overdoses close to 7,000 times, and had zero deaths occur.
The evidence here speaks for itself. Visitors to these sites are provided with a safe, sanitary place free from the threat of arrest or overdose, in turn making the streets cleaner and safer for everyone and saving taxpayer money in the long term.
What needs to happen for these facilities to be more effective?
As of 2018, there were only about 100 approved safe injection sites across the world, the vast majority in Europe. For these sites to truly make a difference in the opioid epidemic that haunts the US, they would need to be much more widespread. Unfortunately, these sites are very controversial, and there are many legal barriers to officially opening one. Local officials in multiple major US cities have expressed interest in opening some sort of safe injection facility, but waver because of the possibility of a negative federal response.
For the cities that are planning on opening a safe injection site, they also face funding challenges. Seattle officials found in 2018 that it would cost somewhere around $3 million to open one, and the city had previously only been able to allot $1 million for this purpose. Where would this money come from? The most direct route would be for taxpayers to vote on a levy that would directly fund such a project. Budgets could also be reallocated, but clearly, getting the support and money required to build a safe injection site would be no easy task.
My Impact Project
Although my city, Seattle, is farther along the path for safe injection sites than others, we still do not officially have one. When I thought about what I could do to push for our first official safe consumption site for injectable drugs, a couple things came to mind. I could start a petition for a levy that would fund the construction and operation of a safe injection site. I could also email lawmakers and top addiction experts in both my own city and others, expressing my support for safe injection sites, stating the benefits to the host city (like decreasing public injections and saving taxpayers money in the long run), and asking what it would take to get one built.
However, I wanted to do something more immediate while I waited for responses to my emails. The biggest priority is getting those suffering from addiction the help and resources they need, so I decided to go old school and simply make flyers. They state a few things: the nearest safe disposal site for needles, the phone numbers and addresses of prominent Seattle addiction facilities, and confidential addiction hotlines. Here is an example of one flyer, slated to go in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood:” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer” data-wplink-url-error=”true”>