Safe sites for drug use should be reconsidered

Erick Seelbach is executive director of PCAF (Pierce County AIDS Foundation).
Erick Seelbach is executive director of PCAF (Pierce County AIDS Foundation).

If we truly want to address the opiate crisis in Pierce County, shouldn’t we consider all potential tools and interventions? Public health decisions should be based on research and evidence, not fear and stigma.

The Pierce County Council’s vote to ban safe consumption sites before they had even been studied or considered was bad public policy practice. The council should reconsider that pre-emptive vote and encourage an informed, public review of this potential solution.

Significant misinformation has been spread about safe consumption sites. We think it is important to provide accurate information about what happens in the sites, along with evidence that supports their place in addressing the impacts of drug use on our communities:

1. Medical professionals endorse and staff these sites. They are so safe that the model was endorsed by the American Medical Association precisely because they lead to fewer overdose deaths, less transmission of infectious disease and an increase in users seeking treatment.

Far from being drug-delivery businesses, the sites are safe, clean locations in which people can use drugs obtained elsewhere under direct supervision of healthcare professionals who offer sterile equipment, overdose prevention and access to resources such as treatment.

They are not a place to acquire drugs, but rather a place to use them in an environment that mitigates negative impacts and connects people to resources.

2. Safe consumption sites are an evidence-based measure to address not just overdose deaths, but drug addiction, particularly with long-term drug users.

Data demonstrates they increase treatment referrals and decrease drug use. Research shows they decrease opiate-related deaths and reduce public drug use. Further, they lessen the burden of overdoses and deaths, plus police, hospital and clinic costs, thus saving public funds.

There has not been a single death at InSite in Vancouver, B.C. The Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General of British Columbia confirms that none of the 780 drug deaths in Vancouver occurred inside a safe consumption site. In fact, Canada is adding sites in other cities based on the success of this model.

We wholeheartedly agree Pierce County must focus resources on evidence-based treatment and recovery-support services. Safe consumption sites are one piece of the puzzle, and the proven benefits are many:

▪  Increasing referral to treatment and decreasing drug use, especially for long-term users;

▪  Reducing overdoses and transmission of infectious diseases;

▪  Reducing costs associated with policing, hospital and emergency room visits, and other emergency responses;

▪  Decreasing drug use and discarded needles in public spaces.

Pierce County has a long history of harm reduction practice that has improved people’s lives. These sites are not only an effective harm reduction measure for people who use drugs, they are shown to have an enduring positive effect on residents and businesses, reducing public nuisance and complaints to police.

Drug users are members of our community who deserve the same compassionate public health responses as everyone else. Preemptively banning a reasoned and researched response is not good public health practice, nor is it sound public policy.

Erick Seelbach is executive director of PCAF (Pierce County AIDS Foundation). Ingrid Walker is associate professor of American Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma. Her book, “High: Drugs, Desire, and a Nation of Users,” examines how social structures and policy shape drug problems.