November 17, 2023
What happens when people suffering from opiate abuse disorder are provided a safe place in which to inject their drugs?
Switzerland opened its first overdose prevention site in 1986, and began piloting heroin prescriptions in 1992. The result? Between the early 1990s and the mid-to-late- 2000s, overdose death rates were cut in half and the number of people starting to use heroin use fell 80 percent. People were rarely seen shooting up in public. Overdose rates have stayed far below the 1990s peak since then.
Meanwhile, the more time patients spent receiving prescribed heroin, the more likely it was that they switched to abstinence or more traditional medication treatment, which means that rather than “enabling” longer periods of addiction, providing safer drugs and medically supervised places to use them both extends lives and encourages abstinence.
At least 200 such centers now exist in over a dozen countries around the world, with millions of injections recorded for several decades. Not a single death has been reported inside a facility.
The City of New York got into the act in 2021 when it permitted a nonprofit to open two overdose prevention centers, where people with addictions can inject or smoke drugs like opioids and stimulants under medical supervision to reduce the risk of overdose death.
Although neighbors claimed that the centers would attract crime, the opposite was true: there was no increase in crime in the neighborhoods of either center. Meanwhile, research shows that harm reduction approaches that prioritize public health over drug-law enforcement do not lead to higher drug use among those who are already addicted, and can increase the likelihood that they enter treatment.
The New York sites have been utilized over 90,000 times by around 4,000 people, with 1,100 overdoses reversed and no deaths.
Approximately 100,000 people die from overdoses every year in this country.
Maybe it’s time we reconsider our approach.