At Insite in Vancouver, men and women bring their own drugs, get them inspected and 500 a day inject themselves in one of a dozen booths. If someone overdoses, medical staff can apply naloxone or oxygen at the first government-approved safe injection site in North America, established in 2003. Europe has had them since the mid-80s.
“It saves lives,” said Russell Maynard, the Insite director of the PHS Community Services Society in Vancouver.
Maynard came to New Jersey for Friday’s Drug Policy Alliance forum on overdose prevention centers. Without places like Insite, Maynard says there would be higher Hepatitis C and HIV rates, as well as higher hospital costs and more deaths per year in Canada.
“Even the neighborhoods and the zip codes around where overdose prevention sites are located show that the number of overdoses go down, and this is because highest risk individuals who live in those communities have a place to go to be safe,” said Sheila Vakharia, policy manager of academic engagement at the Drug Policy Alliance.
The closest thing New Jersey has to a safe injection site are seven harm-reduction centers that offer clean syringes and state-donated strips to test fentanyl for poisoning.
But three state lawmakers have introduced bills to set up four overdose prevention sites in a pilot program in New Jersey. Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle is among them.
“Rather than have someone shoot or inject in the shadows, in the alleyways, in the hidden places alone, there’s people there on staff with Narcan, with support services if needed. This is about saving lives,” Huttle said.
“There’s pending legislation on this topic that I can’t comment on,” said the commissioner of the state Department of Health, Dr. Shereef Elnahal.
But Elnahal’s keynote address sure sounded like an endorsement.
“Harm reduction is bringing our drug use population in and saying we are here to help as a health care system, we are here to help as a criminal justice system, understanding that rehabilitation is not demonization and marginalization, it is treating the underlying disease that is causing so many people to enter into that vicious cycle,” Elnahal said.
Help Not Handcuffs wants overdose prevention centers – both brick and mortar and mobile — and realizes the potential push back at the whole idea.
“Where’s your priority? Do you want people to die because you want to believe in drug prohibition? Or, do you want to undo the harm of drug prohibition? Drugs are not killing people. Drug prohibition is,” said Help Not Handcuffs CEO Randy Thompson.
The New Jersey Association of County Prosecutors would not comment on safe injection sites because the legislation is pending, but former Ocean County prosecutor Joe Coronato did.
“Just having an exchange and inducing people, not breaking the cycle of addiction. So you need to, in my opinion, make a run at them, okay, and that’s why I think you should have a recovery coach,” Coronato said.
The idea comes with all kinds of questions. In February, the Justice Department sued and blocked the non-profit Safehouse in Philadelphia from opening a safe injection site. The Drug Policy Alliance’s Roseanne Scotti read Safehouse’s reply this week.
“‘Safehouse’s comprehensive model is entirely consistent with the federal government’s response to the opioid crisis,'” said Scotti, quoting from the court documents.
For now, the nation’s first legal overdose prevention center is on hold with New Jersey taking a keen interest in the outcome across the Delaware River.