According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, heroin overdose related deaths more than quadrupled from 2010 to 2015 with more than 13,000 deaths recorded in 2015 alone. Seattle experienced one of the greatest rises in deaths in 2015, with a 58% increase in fatal heroin overdoses. Seattle mayor Ed Murray announced yesterday that he has a plan to combat these alarming statistics, a controversial plan to say the least.
“Like many places across our nation, Seattle and King County are experiencing an epidemic of heroin and prescription opiate use unlike any we’ve seen before,” Murray stated to the press. “Keeping people alive gives them the opportunity to get treatment and begin their path to recovery.”
His plan to keep people alive? Institute safe injection sites where nurses monitor heroin and other injectable drug use. The proposed facilities will provide users with clean needles, cookers, filters, tourniquets and water as well as having onsite nurses available to provide life-saving procedures in case an overdose occurs. Nurses also provide HIV testing as well as vaccine administration.
Safe injection sites are not a new development. In fact, the first government approved injection site was founded in Berne Switzerland in 1989 with facilities in Australia, Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands soon following in its footsteps. Mayor Murray hopes to model the two safe injection sites (one in downtown Seattle and another in rural Cook County) after the Insite injection site located in Vancouver.
Insite is the only safe injection site in North America and operates by the harm reduction model in treating drug addiction. The harm reduction model operates by “decreasing adverse health, social and economic consequences of drug use without requiring abstinence from drug use” according to the Vancouver Coastal Health website. In addition to effectively treating drug overdoses and related deaths, this model benefits Vancouver residents by keeping drug addicts off the streets, preventing the spread of infectious disease, fostering more positive relationships between health care providers and sick individuals and by stabilizing the health in a population that may be too scared to seek medical attention.
The statistics of Insite do not lie. Out of 4,922 overdoses that occurred on site, zero resulted in any deaths. The safe injection site is popular among drug addicts seeking medical help as they have 18,903 registered users resulting in 3,476,722 visits since opening in 2003. They also founded a detox center, aptly named Onsite, in order to help patients going through withdrawal symptoms.
“The reality is people are using drugs, and it should be our mandate to keep people alive and make sure that they can reduce the harms associated with drug use as much as possible,” said Alyssa Aguilera, executive director of advocacy group VOCAL NY in New York City.
New York has long called for the installment of safe injection facilities and has even launched a campaign to bring these injection sites to the city. New York City currently has over 14 needle exchanges where drug users can obtain sterile needles for free.
But not everyone is a fan of safe injection sites and needle exchange programs, despite all of the evidence from Insite. Our own Vice President Mike Pence refused to adopt a needle exchange program, instead relying on prayer to make the rampant drug problem in Indiana go away while governor. He eventually ordered a temporary needle exchange in 2015, but the longevity of the program is questionable. An estimated 200 people contracted HIV while Pence refused to instate the exchange, largely due to users sharing dirty, used needles.
No matter what our Vice President says, states are more open to the idea of safe injection sites in America. Aside from New York and Seattle, Massachusetts passed legislation to permit safe injection sites throughout the state, though there are currently no facilities where patients can use drugs on site and receive treatment. Other states say they are open to such institutions, but need more research to determine if such legislation can actually increase drug use. Health experts, on the other hand, say that all the research we need is already right in front of us.
“The public health harm reduction approach that we are already doing; our needle exchanges are model examples of getting people into treatment,” said Public Health Director Patty Hayes. “This is not a short term road, this is a long road together.”