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AUMICK: Supervised injection sites are viable harm reducers, help addicts

Opinion Column: The Case for Counterculture

In Vancouver, Canada, there exists a building where anyone can walk in, inject heroin with a clean needle and walk out, unbothered by the medical staff on hand in case of emergency.

Vancouver’s Insite Supervised Injection Site was the first supervised injection site in North America. Today, approximately 100 such sites exist throughout the world. While none have legally opened in the United States yet, more than a dozen cities from Philadelphia to Seattle have announced their plans to establish facilities where drug users can inject intravenous drugs with doctor supervision and without legal repercussions. 

Naturally, from former addicts to mayors of major cities, people are outraged by it.

Gov. Charlie Baker (R-Mass.) has rejected a proposal that would initiate the establishment of injection sites in his state, while U.S. Attorney Brian Moran has stalled plans that were in place to open one in Seattle, Washington. U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling has offered his own criticism, stating his disapproval at the fact that “supervised injection sites take a big step toward normalization of a horrible addiction.”

Because this is such a controversial issue, it is important to understand what service these sites aim to provide and why they have been established. Let us first look at the opioid crisis. 

A public health emergency was declared in 2017 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in response to rapidly rising rates of substance abuse. More than 60,000 people died of drug overdoses in the United States in 2016, and by the end of 2017, that number had increased by 10,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

With an estimated 1.7 million addicts in the United States — 652,000 of which are heroin addicts — opiate-related death is only becoming more widespread. Clearly, something must change about our culture’s approach to addiction. The American opioid user faces a number of problems. 

First of all, they may be persecuted for their possession of a controlled substance, leading them to avoid medical attention when an overdose occurs. Additionally, they may struggle to access clean needles or simply not prioritize it, facilitating the spread of deadly diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C. 

This is not merely a social issue. It is an issue of public health being jeopardized because of the stigmatization of giving help to addicts. Supervised injection sites take these issues into consideration and aim not to cure addiction but to decrease the incidence of deaths and diseases that come from it.

Many argue that by giving addicts a safe place to use illicit substances, these sites actively support their addiction and encourage them to not seek help. On the contrary, studies have shown that these facilities actually increase the willingness of people to seek treatment for their addictions. 

“Supervised injection facilities reduce the number of overdose deaths, reduce transmission rates of infectious disease and increase the number of individuals initiating treatment for substance use disorders without increasing drug trafficking or crime in the areas where the facilities are located,” according to the American Medical Association

Supervised injection sites do not encourage addiction. They provide an essential source of medical support to those who may not have had access to it otherwise.

Of course, there are broader issues at play that must be addressed. The solution to addiction is not as simple as making it a safer problem to live with. There is a major issue with the prescribing of prescription painkillers, which 80% of heroin users start out with, and entering treatment to overcome substance abuse is undeniably a better outcome than simply softening its blow. 

But rehabilitation programs are too costly for many to afford, and the public is more or less powerless against the for-profit pharmaceutical industry that creates many of these addictions in the first place by overprescribing medication. To advocate for safe injection sites is not to deny the reality of legal and cultural changes are necessary elsewhere, it is simply to offer a way to make living in that reality safer.

The unfortunate truth is that addiction will always exist. When we stigmatize it and hide it away, all we do is make it harder for those struggling with it to access the resources they need to stay alive. Critics of these supervised injection sites are worried about the normalization of addiction, but addiction is already everywhere. 

What do we have to gain by continuing to create a taboo around it?

Jess Aumick is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in  history. Her column, “The Case for Counterculture,“ runs on alternate  Tuesdays. 


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