Is New York Poised to Open the First Supervised Injection Facility in the U.S.?

October 20, 2015 - By Julie Netherland

A few weeks ago, a remarkable – perhaps unprecedented – event took place.  Nearly 650 people packed a church on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to demand supervised injection facilities (SIFs) in New York City. The event, which was hosted by the Open Society Foundation, brought together a panel of international experts to discuss SIFs and coincided with the public launch of SIF NYC, a campaign to bring supervised injection facilities to New York City.

Although supervised injection facilities are in wide use throughout Europe, there is only one SIF in North America (in Vancouver) and none in the United States.  Also called safer injection sites, drug consumption rooms, and supervised injecting centers, SIFs are designed to reduce the health and public order issues often associated with public injection by providing a space for people to inject pre-obtained drugs in a hygienic environment with access to sterile injecting equipment and under the supervision of trained medical staff.

Today, nearly 100 SIFs exist around the world. Rigorous scientific evaluation has shown them to reduce overdose deaths and infectious disease transmission, improve access to drug treatment and other health care for people who inject drugs, and reduce public disorder, including improperly discarded drug paraphernalia. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence of their effectiveness and their popularity in other parts of the world, SIFs remained largely taboo in the United States, where our focus on abstinence and our Puritan heritage often get in the way of sensible, life-saving public health solutions to drug use.

But at the forum last month, when asked who in the audience wanted to see a SIF in New York, the crowd unanimously voiced its support.  During the question and answer period, person after person spoke movingly about the need for those who use drugs to have a safe place to inject. They also spoke in anger about the danger, stigma, shame, and punishments that many people who use drugs are forced to endure on a daily basis as they simply try to survive or access basic services.

These personal accounts are supported by a recent survey from the Injection Drug Users Health Alliance, which found that a majority of NYC syringe exchange participants reported having to inject in public spaces like parks, subway platforms, and restaurant bathrooms. Those who did were more than twice as likely to have overdosed in the past year, and were four times more likely to have to reuse injection equipment, a key risk factor for disease transmission. Amidst an overdose crisis and with homelessness in New York at all time high, the need for SIFs is all the more pressing.

In New York City, people who use drugs and their allies are standing up and demanding change. It’s time to set aside our antiquated attitudes about drugs and the people who use them and embrace an intervention that we know works. If last month’s forum is any indication, the time for the first supervised injection facility in the United States is now.

Julie Netherland is the New York deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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