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Drug Decriminalization Saves Lives. Why Aren't We Doing It?

Safe consumptions sites are places where people who need help can be treated like people.

In These Times Editors

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safe con • sump • tion site


1. A medical facility for supervised drug use to help users prevent overdoses and the spread of infectious diseases while offering access to social services. 

It’s about making a space where drug users are allowed to feel like people. … We’re also mindful that this is a respite from the street and at times it might be difficult for people to leave the only situation that feels vaguely safe for them in a day
— Darwin Fisher, program coordinator for Insite, a safe consumption site in Canada

Aren’t drugs illegal?

The criminalization of drugs hasn’t kept them from becoming a public health hazard — and we can’t just pretend they don’t exist. More than 106,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2021 in the United States, a number that has doubled since 2015. Three-quarters of the overdose deaths in 2021 were from opioid use, and nearly 3 million Americans struggle with opioid use disorder today. To help affected people, many are arguing for a policy of harm reduction” to make drug use less risky.

And how exactly do safe consumption sites reduce harm?

Sites provide clean syringes and alcohol wipes to prevent the spread of infectious diseases for IV drug users, for example and are prepared with oxygen masks and the anti-overdose drug naloxone to help manage bad reactions. One facility in Vancouver, Canada, has responded to more than 6,000 overdoses since opening in 2003 without a single death — and the number of fatal overdoses has also decreased in the surrounding area. A proposed safe consumption site in Philadelphia would likely prevent dozens of deaths annually. Importantly, the sites provide a safe place for people who use drugs, who are often facing myriad social and emotional challenges, to be treated with respect.

Respect instead of policing? That doesn’t sound like America.

Of the more than 100 safe consumption sites worldwide, most are in Canada, Australia and Europe. Only two are in the United States, both in New York, though several states and local jurisdictions have considered opening their own. But the sites are illegal at the federal level and many politicians apparently think safe sites somehow promote drug use.

Do they, though?

It’s difficult to prove since there aren’t enough safe consumption sites, but no evidence so far has indicated that these sites increase the local rate of drug use or crime. In fact, regulars at the Vancouver site are more likely to pursue addiction treatment and drug detox programs than other drug users, in part because the site’s staff is able to provide information and assistance with healthcare if asked.

This is part of ​“The Big Idea,” a monthly series offering brief introductions to progressive theories, policies, tools and strategies that can help us envision a world beyond capitalism. For recent In These Times coverage on these ideas, see We Should Be Able to Fix Our Stuff Ourselves, The Necessary Refuge of Third Places, and Sealing Criminal Records Benefits Us All.

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