Seattle May Be Home To America’s First Safe Injection Facility

By Zachary Siegel 12/18/15

Can harm reduction techniques take root in the United States?

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For supervised injection facilities (SIFs), the time is now so “Get on the bandwagon, or get the fuck out of our way,” announced Shilo Murphy, executive director of the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance in Seattle.

There is both dire need and meaningful momentum in Seattle in favor of SIFs that Murphy is trying to seize. City Hall members say they’re in support of or are open to having safe injection facilities in Seattle. Even Mayor Ed Murray said he’d consider safe drug sites within his county, but needs to learn more about their functional operation.

Seattle would be the first city in America to adopt the new public health measure. There is also a push for SIFs in New York State.

Dr. Caleb Banta-Green, a drug-abuse researcher at the University of Washington, says SIFs are a necessary public-health measure. “The evidence base is very clear,” he told Seattle Weekly, “[SIFs] have very good health outcomes and do not have a big downside,”

If there is a downside, it’s doubtful it can be any worse than doing nothing, the result of which we’re seeing in the latest CDC opiate-related mortality statistics. In 2013, there were 23,153 people involved in opioid-related deaths. But SIFs don’t only save lives, however, they also reduce blood-borne diseases. In Seattle, 70% of injection-drug users are infected with hepatitis C.

SIFs are currently operating in over eight countries worldwide, yet the United States is not one of those countries. Outcome studies from InSite, a SIF in Vancouver, demonstrate significant reductions in both disease and fatal overdose. In fact, at InSite there has never been one single fatality.

People who argue SIFs detract from recovery and enable drug users misinterpret what the empirical data suggests, Banta-Green said. SIFs are usually an injection drug users first humane encounter with professional health care.

“It’s really a front door in,” he said, “and it’s not all by itself ... if that’s what that person needs today is a [safe place], awesome. But if we’re making a relationship and a connection, and then the fourth or fifth time they come back, they’re interested in getting [connected to other services], then you’re set up for that.”

“When we have this many folks on the street injecting,” May Murphy said, “[and] rising overdose rates—it’s time for action, not for 10 years of negotiation.”

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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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