New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has announced support for a plan to create “safe injection sites,” where addicts can take illegal street drugs with legal sanction in a medically managed environment. Such sites have been used so far only outside the United States. In New York City, deaths by overdose are four times those from homicide. De Blasio, looking to raise his profile, perhaps in pursuit of higher office, views “safe” sites as an important tool in the battle against a nationwide epidemic of opioid abuse. Emergency-room visits for opioid overdoses rose 30 percent across the U.S. from July 2016 to September 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 16 states, overdoses rose by 54 percent in large cities.
Advocates argue that safe injection sites offer proactive treatment options for addicts who come to shoot up. But there is “virtually no evidence that (safe injection sites) lead people into treatment,” notes Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker, who opposes them. Vermont, which wants to set up sites, was lambasted by its own U.S. attorney for its ambition to do so. “It is a crime, not only to use illicit narcotics, but to manage and maintain sites on which such drugs are used and distributed,” noted the federal prosecutor’s office in a December 2017 open letter.
The worst potential consequence is the normalization of serious drug use in the name of harm reduction. Safe injection sites are essentially state-sponsored shooting-up galleries. No limits have been defined for who can use them, or how often. If a teenager decides that he wants to experiment with black tar heroin, should the injection site be opened to him? Should nurses accompany users who arrive at the sites to take lethal quantities of fentanyl, with naloxone inhalers ready at hand to revive them? How many overdoses will addicts be permitted per day? How many additional police officers will be detailed to the neighborhood around the legal injection site to deal with drug sales, or with drug robberies of eager addicts heading to the sites to use?
We have some evidence of what these sites look like in practice and the effect they create. David Carson, a local politician from Redmond, Washington, went to Vancouver to visit one of the sites touted as a major success by advocates. Instead, he saw lives and a whole neighborhood being destroyed. “It looked like a war zone. There were drug-addled, glassy-eyed people strewn about,” Carson noted. “One man was lying shoeless and lifeless on his side on the cold sidewalk; I honestly couldn’t tell if he was alive or not; I couldn’t bear to take a picture of him.”
Opioids have ravaged families and devastated communities across the country. Encouraging their open use undermines the rule of law and will do nothing to quell their continued abuse, let alone the problems underlying mass addiction. Mayor de Blasio deserves credit for his focus on this scourge, but legal injection sites are not the answer. In fact, they will only worsen the crisis.