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Are injection sites a slippery slope, or a tool against opioid epidemic?

Can safe injection sites really help Seattle's opioid crisis? (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

The debate surrounding proposed safe injection sites in Seattle has been a contentious one to say the least. Opponents say the sites would promote taxpayer funded drug use, while advocates claim they’re one of the best tools we have to combat the opioid epidemic. So, which is it?

“The answer comes down simply to data,” Crozer-Keystone Health System’s Dr. Rick Pescatore told KTTH’s Jason Rantz. “The data is consistent; the data is overwhelming that supervised consumption sites represent a clearinghouse for patients. They decrease mortality, they decrease overdoses, decrease communicable disease, they decrease crime, and overall, they provide a public health good.”

“But it also does not save the actual communities in which these heroin injection sites are housed,” countered Rantz.

Regarding that point, Pescatore pointed out a need to place safe injection sites in areas where drug use is most prevalent, essentially meeting patients where they reside.

The biggest sticking point for many opponents, though, relates to the possibility of a slippery slope. While safe injection sites are designed to provide a medically-supervised location for drug use, that doesn’t solve the problem of drugs laced with deadly chemicals like fentanyl. The question then becomes whether that could lead to state-sponsored distribution of heroin to counter that epidemic.

State lawmaker wants safe injection site supporters to go on record

“Is there a possibility that government-sponsored [drug] substitution here is beneficial? I don’t know, I need to see data,” Pescatore conceded. “In the interim, all that I could do as a physician [and] as a public health advocate, all that we could do for our brethren, is to identify the things that help patients and engage in them until we find something better.”

Pescatore points to the fact that Vancouver, BC’s controversial Insite safe injection facility has never had a single fatal overdose. Beyond that, Insite also reports a 35 percent increase in patients entering detoxification and medication-assisted therapy programs.

Further data from Dr. Pescatore cites a monetary benefit as well.

“Seven-hundred thousand injections at the Insite facility over one year, nearly 2,000 overdoses, but not one death, in the same area and the same amount of overdoses where we would have expected 50 deaths. When you apply the health care numbers, that you’re looking at nearly $75 million in health care savings from that alone,” he pointed out.

Doctor: Why US attorney is wrong about safe injection sites

For now, Seattle’s plans for a safe injection site have hit recent roadblocks. Back in March, reports surfaced that the city’s site needed an additional $2.5 million in funding. Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney Brian Moran was explicit in his warning to the city to not move forward with its plans.

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