Opposing Safe Drug Injection Sites? Unholster Gun, Aim at Foot, Shoot

Shooting ourselves in the foot is not a bad analogy for world drug policy–shooting both feet might be a better one. A story in point comes to us courtesy of the Fresno Bee, in California. A state assemblyman, a local doctor and the county supervisors chairman of Fresno, my home town once upon a long-ago time, furnish the story.

A bill has been working its way through the California legislature, slowly over the past year or so, to set up a pilot program of supervised injection sites in several drug problematic counties. Fresno is one.  It does not require the counties to participate. It allows them to do so if they are willing to foot the bill. No way, says, Supervisors Chairman Brian Pacheco.  Fresno taxpayers are not going to pay for it.

According to the Bee, a local doctor opposes the idea, because the city is an agricultural hub, with drug users spread out across the rural landscape, not concentrated in an urban environment. That’s hard to square with the facts. More than a half-million people live within the city of Fresno. Government data indicate 2.6% of people 13 and over use injectable drugs. If only 6 tenths of 1% of Fresno’s residents were to take advantage of the service, there would be 3,000 potential daily customers, not counting those who would come in from nearby areas.

As we have reported here before, the city of Ithaca, New York, is much smaller and it, too, is centered in a farming region. There the city council and mayor have adopted, not just talked about, a program that includes an injection site, once legal hurdles are cleared.

Opposing the pending California bill is Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno). The program would give his district an opportunity to help thousands of addiction sufferers. Yet he sides with the opposition who mistakenly think injection sites add to taxpayer burdens. Anyone who takes the time to check the evidence of experience knows better.

Some readers will recall my discussion of Vancouver, B.C.’s fourteen-year experience with their site called Insite. There, they overcame court challenges when Canada’s Supreme Court approved the facility because of the demonstrable good it was doing. Ample evidence showed it reduces overdose deaths and neighborhood lawbreaking, while promoting addiction recovery. In the two years after Insite opened in Vancouver, 35% fewer people died of overdoses in a 3-mile radius around the clinic. There was a drop in same period for the rest of the city too–by 9%. Similar results have been reported in Sydney, Australia.

Access to clean needles at these sites has reduced HIV and Hepatitis C infection cases, too, as reckless use is reduced. Healthcare and law enforcement costs are saved. Plus, as Dr. Brandon Marshall states  more people are heading for rehab and taking themselves out of the underworld drug market.

These services are allowed in several European countries. Contrary to the fears of some they are not associated with any increase in drug use.  Why would these services not work equally well in Fresno? People who use injectables should have a place to do it safely—not just because it is a humane way to treat them, but also because they otherwise do it unsafely and, in many cases, add to the burden on taxpayers of emergency overdose care and the treatment of infectious diseases that spread through the  use of unclean needles.

The attitude of some that when people harm themselves through illegal drug use, well that’s just their  problem, is a gravely mistaken one. While we don’t condone illegal conduct of any kind, most addicted adults got their start with drugs as teens and even pre-teens. Addictions form, the science shows,  due to individual vulnerabilities affecting the young person.  And, though the addicted do not lose all power of self-control, the control circuits in their brains have been dramatically compromised. They have a disorder comparable to any other mental disorder that powerfully influences behavior. No one doubts the moral imperative of providing help to those with obsessive-compulsive disorder, bi-polar or schizophrenia. Why would we turn our backs on the drug-addicted?

By giving them a safe place to inject, and help assure they do it safely, we bring them into a place of constructive influence. Repeated visits mean repeated exposure to health workers who encourage these people to think about rehab. The hundreds of rehab successes at Vancouver’s facility has saved taxpayer’s far more than what it costs to provide the service, and this should be Fresno’s expectation too.

© All rights reserved to Dave Finch

The Second Edition of my book, Kill the Drug Trade: Ending the War on Drugs in a System of Toleration Counseling and Control is coming within the next few days. It is an informative read for anyone who wants to really understand the issues of drugs in society, addiction prevention and addiction recovery. Meanwhile, visit my Reform Drug Policy Project for more insights about drugs and drug policy.

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