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Will Ithaca Be First to Open Safe Injection Site for Addicts?

In 27 cities across the world, heroin injection sites – known as “supervised injection sites” or “safe injection sites” – are saving people’s lives. But the federal government of the U.S. hasn’t permitted even one to be opened in the U.S. Svante Myrick, the mayor of Ithaca, New York, is hoping to break the mold by opening the country’s first such site in his city. Which could offer invaluable help to addicts.

Myrick’s incentive is strong, and personal. His father was a drug addict, and was separated from the family when Myrick was 5 or 6 years old. ”I have watched for 20 years this system that just doesn’t work,” he told the Associated Press. “We can’t wait anymore for the federal government. We have people shooting up in alleys. In bathroom stalls. And too many of them are dying.”

The U.S. does have something close to safe injection sites: needle exchange programs. Addicts can take their used needles there and get new ones. This helps prevent the spread of HIV and other diseases.

But actual sites where addicts can come to inject their drugs (generally heroin) in the presence of a nurse and other professionals, also reduces the rate of overdoses. In fact, over 75 studies on supervised injection sites have proven it.

But even more than making clean needles available, they also present an opportunity for addicts to get in contact with and talk to counselors who can help them get proper health care and discuss possibilities for drug treatment that will actually get them off drugs.

The general public has been worried about these sites attracting addicts, dealers, and drug-related crime, but so far none of the sites studied have shown that to be true.

The harm-reduction alternative to these sites is, unfortunately, methadone clinics and doctors who prescribe suboxone. The intention of both is to help addicts through withdrawal from opiates – everything from heroin to prescription painkillers – so they can then get off drugs completely.

But methadone clinics rarely work that way. They are required to provide counseling about drug abuse, but that often means getting one session a week. Anyone who knows the drug treatment fields knows that doesn’t work.

The most successful drug rehab is long-term and residential. And by long-term I’m not talking about a month. To get off the drugs and then find and address all the factors in a person’s life that led them to drugs, got them addicted, keeps them addicted and so on can take several months.

But far more people using this method actually get rehabilitated, turn their life around and live drug free.

The success of long-term residential drug treatment programs is well-known. Nevertheless, the trend is towards just getting people onto another drug that, it is hoped, might be safer than the one they’re on and reduce overdoses, disease, and drug-related crime.

But the person is still a drug addict. And worse, if the person ever decides to take matters into their own hands and get off methadone, they’re going to have a hard time because methadone is even more difficult to get off than the drugs they used to take.

A safe injection site in Ithaca is a better choice for now, and then follow that up with real drug treatment that works.

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