5 Takeaways From the Global Meeting on Supervised Injection Facilities

By Zachary Siegel 05/18/16

Experts from SIFs around the world shared their experiences in a recent meeting.

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Last September, the Harm Reduction Coalition convened with international law enforcement and public health experts to discuss how supervised injection facilities (SIFs) could curtail the American opiate crisis, which currently shows little signs of abating.

In a report titled Alternatives to Public Injection, experts with experience operating SIFs in Frankfurt, Sydney, and Vancouver shared how such facilities were implemented in their countries, and how they are effective as a solution to public health crises that involve injection drug use.

Out of the consultation, which also included the Open Society Foundation and the Foundation for AIDS Research, came five takeaways relevant to American policymakers:

  1. People who use SIFs take better care of themselves, reduce or eliminate their needle sharing, use their drugs more safely, and ultimately reduce their drug use.
  2. SIF participants gain access to other medical and social services and entry into drug treatment.
  3. There has not been a single overdose death in any of these programs over many years of operation and many thousands of supervised injections.
  4. SIFs do not increase drug use in the area, nor do they encourage young people to initiate drug use.
  5. Crime and public nuisance decrease in the areas around these programs.

Each country in attendance stressed the importance of buy-in from the community, stakeholders, and local law enforcement, to successfully implement SIFs. America may have a long way to go, but the needle looks to be moving in the right direction.

“SIFs are practical, concrete, humane, and cost-effective,” said Greg Scott, a professor of sociology at DePaul University, who is also the co-creator of Safe Shape, a pop-up public health art exhibit, which functions as a mock SIF.

To address the stunning mortality caused by opiate use, Scott told The Fix that novel approaches need to be taken, ones that promote health and safety over incarceration and punishment. He thinks SIFs show great promise, and the science is on his side.

“In every respect, SIFs make sense,” said Scott. “They represent a logical (and arguably moral) next step in the process of creatively and effectively providing the whole country with far better health solutions for drug users than have ever been available before.”

Since the opiate crisis has spared no demographic, and American families are experiencing the harms of unscientific drug policies, there has been a groundswell of interest in public health alternatives to solving this problem. On Sunday, USA Today’s editorial board endorsed the idea of supervised injection facilities, one of many mainstream outlets to come out in favor of the lifesaving concept.

“Yes, we know, this might look crazy at first glance. We thought so, too, but the results where this approach has been tried suggest it just might make sense,” USA Today wrote.

“Some say that SIFs are a radical idea, an extreme departure from, say, sterile syringe access services,” Scott said. “But most eventually realize that they are not extreme in the least.”

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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