July 15, 2019 | 73° F

EDITORIAL: Safe spaces for drug use are valuable

Addressing heroin epidemic requires more than prison sentences


Heroin is a detriment to the individual and society as a whole. It hollows out one's vitality of life, and a person is reduced to a mere shell of his or her former self.

More people are likely to be addicted to heroin today than in the past. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heroin use increased in the United States among all societal demographics, cutting across gender, age groups and income levels. The highly addictive substance ruins lives, and its use has become so prevalent that it’s considered a public health crisis.

Despite how it’s described in medical terms and proclaimed as an epidemic, it isn’t addressed as such. Public policy has yet to catch up with medical diagnoses and scientific assessments of drug addiction, because right now addicts face only two options — prison or a rehabilitation center. When you’re addicted, clearly you can’t use pure will to stop — once you’re hooked, you need help. And since most people aren’t part of the privilege, few with effortless access to rehabilitation centers, they ultimately end up in the former of the two options and become part of the prison system. Ultimately, the problems addicts face aren’t fixed by the time they’re released from prison and propels the cycle of recidivism — drugs, prison, drugs, prison. Under current drug policies, people are hopeless, aimless and helpless. People addicted to drugs continue to suffer.

A relatively radical plan that’s never been implemented in the U.S., but has had experience in European countries and a North American city, is currently being debated. In Ithaca, New York, the mayor is proposing a controversial bill that creates supervised and regulated spaces for heroin addicts to shoot up. It is a last resort for people addicted to heroin. The rationale is that if they can’t be helped in other ways, the minimum form of assistance they can be provided with is a place to use drugs in safety.

But sanctioning heroin use is jarring. Just the thought of looking over someone using a needle to pierce through the skin, into the veins and injecting a stigmatized substance is, at the very least, uncomfortable. When taxpayer dollars are funneled into a program that makes drug use permissible, it looks as if the government is promoting drug use.

However, the government isn’t promoting drug use. Most people who are sensible understand the pain that one endures when addicted to a drug. It’s equally as important to recognize that ameliorating the severity of the heroin epidemic requires us to move past how it makes one uncomfortable. Heroin is uncomfortable — but get over it. It’s a reality that exists and cannot be ignored by resorting to putting people away in prison, hidden from plain sight and forgotten. It may cost tax dollars, but putting them in prison will be more expensive and indubitably hopeless. When people are going to use heroin anyway, the only tactic to left is to make it at least safe.

Current research shows that countries and cities that have made the concept that’s proposed a reality, such as in Vancouver, Canada, exhibited declined in people using drugs in public. The medical staff was able to make 2,000 referrals within a year for people to find more help, and researchers believe the supervised facility lowered overdose deaths by 35 percent in its neighborhood and 10 percent citywide. Merely criminalizing heroin use hasn’t had as good of a result.

Would you prefer seeing someone using heroin in public — a person alone, under some bridge or an obscure place? Or would you prefer having someone use heroin in a sterile clinic under professional supervision, a place where needles are clean and overdoses are quickly tended to? These are questions we are faced with, and the answers may be more obvious than what you would expect.

The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 148th editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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