Can supervised injections reduce harm of heroin crisis?

Ithaca, New York, wants to be the first U.S. city to embrace an innovative strategy to fighting the heroin epidemic: Let residents shoot heroin.

By embracing a proposal for a “supervised injection facility” site, the city’s mayor is hoping to reduce public drug use and reduce the spread of hepatitis and HIV, which can be easily spread through shared syringes.

According to The New York Times, users would inject under supervision of medical professionals and would only be permitted to carry and inject small quantities of the drug.

No other U.S. city has such a facility, which Mayor Svante Myrick proposed last month on the recommendation of a committee created to address the heroin crisis.

Actually opening one in Ithaca would require an overhaul to state and federal law, the Times said.

To call the idea controversial is a bit of an understatement.

According to The New York Times:

Ever since Mr. Myrick, 29, unveiled a plan last month for what he called a “supervised injection facility,” critics have pounced on it as a harebrained idea that would just enable more drug abuse. A Republican state legislator, Tom O’Mara, called it “preposterous” and “asinine,” and a Cornell law professor, William A. Jacobson, said it would be a “government-run heroin shooting gallery.”

But there’s also precedent.

In Vancouver, a safe injection site was proposed in 2001, also controversially, and it’s been credited with getting more drug users to treatment, according to the Times. Illegal drug use has also dropped.

The facility, known as Insite, has been free of deadly overdoses.

“Over the last 13 years, millions of injections have occurred at Insite and there have been no deaths. The United States would be wise to make this service available to all who need it,” Patricia Daly, chief medical officer of the organization that runs Insite, said in an op-ed published last week.

No other North American city has followed the model, according to the Times. The situation is different in Europe, the story said, where the first supervised injection site was opened in Switzerland 30 years ago.

According to Ithaca’s proposal, the site is one part of a multi-pronged approach that also focuses on prevention, drug treatment and changes to law enforcement. The injection site is part of a “harm reduction” section that makes up a key part of the plan to address drug use in the city of about 30,000.

In Pennsylvania, a “harm reduction” approach to injection drug use has been embraced by city leaders in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh for many years. Stopping far short of an injection site, both cities pioneered needle exchanges in recognition that drug use can be made more safe, even if state law prohibits the distribution of drug paraphernalia.

Like New York, Pennsylvania has been ravaged by a heroin and opioid epidemic. In Allegheny County alone, heroin and opioids were the primary cause of 246 overdose deaths in 2015. The toll attributed to both heroin and fentanyl increased from previous years.

Reach Jeffrey Benzing at 412-315-0265 or at jbenzing@publicsource.org. Follow him on Twitter @jabenzing.