The opioid epidemic has sent doctors and legislators scrambling for solutions. The federal government has attempted to both block access to opioids and improve treatment options for those who are already addicted. The medical community has looked to specialized training and careful prescription practices. But, these efforts are not limited to federal agencies or medical professionals. Across the country, public health officials in municipalities have tried to address the crisis in other ways. At least thirteen states and cities are considering “safe” or supervised injection sites, which would provide medical supervision and a dedicated location where addicts could use drugs.
Advocates of safe injection sites argue that such sites can reduce the rate and frequency of drug use, decrease the number of deaths, prevent overdoses, connect addicts to treatment, and control the spread of diseases (like HIV) associated with drug use. Such sites have already been implemented in a dozen countries. Now, several U.S. cities that have suffered from the effects of the opioid crisis are taking steps to establish similar sites. Philadelphia is considering a safe injection site where users can bring drugs that they have previously obtained and inject them using sterile equipment. Other cities, including San Francisco, Seattle, and Ithaca, are weighing similar measures.
However, despite increasing support, the notion of safe injection sites remains controversial. When Philadelphia announced its intention to open a trial site, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said that such a plan would violate federal drug laws and would be met with swift reprisal from the government. Rosenstein warned that the site would bring municipal laws into direct conflict with federal laws, suggesting that the city’s interest in reducing opioid-related deaths did not trump the federal interest to maintain consistent criminal laws.
This clash between municipal reform efforts and federal laws is only the latest front in the drug war. In recent years, state drug laws have relaxed as more states have approved medical (and recreational) marijuana. The issue of establishing safe injection sites is only the latest controversy that bears close and careful observation.