needle

Providing safe injection sites will help mitigate harm from the drug crisis, opinion columnist Ammar Farra argues.

According to a CDC estimate, 100,306 Americans died from drug overdose from May 2020 to April 2021. As the drug crisis exacerbated, New York City decided to step in and create the first national supervised illegal drug injection site. Kansas should follow suit.

After bringing their illegal drugs with them, users get sanitary needless and the staff’s help in administering the drug safely. Should things go awry, naloxone is on hand to block the effects of opioids. Brochures and information about addiction treatment are also accessible for users.

The two sites, in East Harlem and Washington Heights, already reversed two overdoses. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City celebrated the effort to create them.

“After decades of failure, a smarter approach is possible,” de Blasio said.

While Philadelphia, Seattle and Boston discussed the possibilities of opening sites, their efforts lagged due to opposition and litigation. New York’s sites, too, may come under scrutiny. The Justice Department headed by Attorney General Merrick Garland refused to declare whether it was going to persecute the establishment. 

Under the Nixon-era Controlled Substances Act, the sites may be illegal, although the ripeness doctrine precluded courts from reviewing the case until their establishment. A legal scholar claimed there is a loophole in the law that may provide immunity to officials who breach federal laws as they enforce “any law or municipal ordinance relating to controlled substances.”

For some opponents, these areas encourage and reinforce the dirty drug-seeking behavior. But what is the alternative? To let users administer suspect drugs themselves in dilapidated alleyways where there is no way to contact hospitals or medical professionals if a victim passes out?

Refusing to acknowledge the burden of the big pharmaceutical companiespharmacies or health insurance companies and shaming drug users discounts the systemic causes of the opioid crisis. By establishing injection sites, New York City alleviated the stigmatization users feel, undermining narratives of moral erosion that fuel drug addiction and relapse.

Establishing the sites is a humane way to alleviate harm. But questions regarding their supervision and safety are paramount. A board or agency must oversee the practices within the sites to ascertain their commitment to safety and health of users.

While the idea was celebrated as a novel strategy in combating overdose, Canada, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Luxembourg, Norway and Australia all created similar spaces prior to New York City — with varying degrees of success. The most concrete correlation was the user’s increased propensity to take the addiction treatment information. Further, there was evidence that correlated sites with lower morbidity and mortality.

Kansas saw at least 558 deaths in the 12-month period ending in April 2021, a 45.7%  increase from the prior year. And with a large number of the cases associated with opioids — 45% in 2018 — it is imperative to do something.

Current solutions and approaches clearly do not work; the overdose and opioid crisis worsen every day with little to no fresh approaches. New York embraced a nationally novel strategy to combat overdose. 

Likewise, we must enact a more progressive approach to drug overdose and the opioid crisis, one that is centered on the humane treatment of those afflicted with the far-ranging effects of addiction. 

The real test of whether Kansas politicians are committed to public safety and health or to conventional moral attitudes that demean and dishearten people is now.