Safe Injection Site - An Overview

Philadelphia is trying to open the first safe injection site in the USA, and it has people in the neighborhood very divided. I think part of the problem is that people aren’t educated on what this is. They hear that drug addicts can go shoot up inside a building and believe that their tax dollars are being spent on funding this, and they have a gut reaction that isn’t based on facts. That gut reaction is that a safe injection site can’t possibly be beneficial, and they certainly don’t want it anywhere near where they live. So here’s some actual information, based on facts. 

Before talking about a safe injection site, it is important to understand that these sites fall under the category of harm reduction. Safe injection sites are not an alternative to treatment, they are simply another option to no tolerance approach. 

What Is Harm Reduction?

Harm reduction is the attempt to decrease the negative consequences of drug or alcohol use. A harm reduction model recognizes that a person is going to continue to use drugs. The goal is to educate people and reduce the harms associated with drug use and behaviors surrounding their drug use. There are the obvious inherent risks in using illicit (and legal) drugs, but a harm reduction model attempts to reduce any risky behaviors that users engage in to obtain those drugs or while a person is under the influence of those drugs.

Most people assume that abstinence is the only way to help someone with a drug problem, but a harm reduction theory assumes that abstinence is not going to occur at this point. Harm reduction is about treating people who use drugs with dignity and respect instead of judgment and contempt.

It’s about respecting the rights of people who use drugs and protecting human rights and improving public health. The unfortunate fact is that some people are unable or unwilling to stop using drugs. 

What Is A Safe Injection Site?

A safe injection site (or supervised injection site) is a facility that provides medical supervision and a hygienic environment for people to use drugs. At this site, there are trained medical staff who observe drug users and make sure they do not die of an overdose. They do this during and after consumption and can administer oxygen and/or naloxone if necessary. Safe injection sites also provide clean hypodermic needles and teach people how to clean needles if they are going to reuse them. While ideally, a person would not reuse hypodermic needles, it’s important to be realistic, and the reality is that drug users often reuse needles. Additionally, the safe injection site is a place where used needles can be disposed of properly. The staff at the sites do NOT give people drugs, help people use drugs, or encourage people to continue to use drugs. 

Safe House Philly, the nonprofit corporation attempting to open the first safe injection site n the US, lists the following as the services they would provide:

-       SAVE LIVES by reducing the number of fatal drug overdoses through education on safer use practices, overdose prevention, and intervention

-       REDUCE THE SPREAD OF INFECTIOUS DISEASES such as HIV and hepatitis C among people who use drugs by providing and requiring the use of provided sterile consumption supplies

-       CONNECT PEOPLE who use drugs with other health, treatment, and social services.

-       CREATE A SAFER COMMUNITY by reducing drug use in public spaces and publicly discarded paraphernalia.

As you can see, safe injection sites are about way more than just letting people come inside and use drugs comfortably.


Why This Could Be A Good Thing

Staff members at safe injection sites are also trained to offer referrals to drug treatment and other treatment services to drug users who are interested in that. The idea is to keep a drug user alive, safe, and relatively healthy until he or she is ready to get treatment/stop using drugs. Safe injection sites are meant to work in conjunction with other types of treatment, not replace them!

A lot of people have a knee jerk reaction that we shouldn’t be letting addicts use drugs safely, we should insist that they stop. It’s important to realize that these sites are NOT a replacement for drug treatment. 

Do They Exist Elsewhere In The World?

Yes! There are more than 120 safe injection sites/supervised injection sites in Europe, Canada, and Australia. In a separate post, I will discuss the data and statistics on the sites in these countries. 

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