Supervised injection sites prevent overdose deaths, improve public safety


In a fortuitous alignment, the medical journals with the three largest print circulations (JAMA, American Family Physician, and The New England Journal of Medicine) each recently published editorials or features making the case for opening supervised sites for injection drug use in the United States as a form of harm reduction for patients with substance use disorders.

A news feature in JAMA observed that these sites come in many varieties depending on agency resources and patient needs: 

Supervised consumption sites can be as modest as a social service agency restroom stall, the door shortened at the bottom to make it easier to spot an unconscious person, or as expansive as Vancouver’s trailblazing Insite, which averaged 312 injection room visits per day in 2019 and offers detox rooms with private bathrooms, transitional housing for people in recovery, and other wraparound services.

In the U.S., a legal statue forbidding the operation of establishments where illicit drugs are consumed has generally forced these sites underground. Nonetheless, a research report on the outcomes an unsanctioned site located in an undisclosed U.S. city reported that over 5 years, 33 overdoses were successfully treated with naloxone administered by trained staff, with no patients requiring transfer to an outside medical institution. Advocates of supervised consumption sites argue that they do not “enable” substance use; rather, they relocate use that otherwise occur without medical supervision, often in public places, and prevent deaths from overdoses. The JAMA article quoted Sam Rivera, executive director of a nonprofit organization that operates two sites in New York City, as saying: “Every person who walks in has tried treatment and detox. We want them to be able to try again when they’re ready, and in order to do that they have to be alive.”
An editorial in AFP by Drs. Jorge Finke and Jie Chan cited abundant evidence demonstrating that supervised injection sites improve health outcomes for persons who use illicit drugs and the surrounding community:

One study found a 26% net reduction in overdose deaths in the area surrounding a supervised injection site in Vancouver, Canada, compared with the rest of the city. A supervised injection site in Barcelona, Spain, was associated with a 50% reduction in overdose mortality from 1991 to 2008. People who inject drugs are significantly less likely to share needles if they regularly use supervised injection sites. … Supervised injection sites can also reduce the number of publicly discarded syringes, and they improve public safety. … One study in Vancouver, Canada, observed an abrupt, persistent decrease in crime after the opening of a supervised injection site.

In addition, modeling studies predict that opening supervised injection sites could be cost-saving “by preventing HIV, hepatitis C, hospitalizations for skin and soft-tissue infections, overdose deaths, ambulance calls, and emergency department visits and by increasing uptake of addiction treatment.”

NEJM Perspective article asserted that the Biden administration should take action to “[make] it clear that the federal government won’t stand in the way of organizations or state or local governments that want to establish overdose-prevention centers,” given that the Department of Justice under the Trump administration asked courts to block the opening of a sanctioned site in Philadelphia in 2019. Arguably, Section 856 of the Controlled Substances Act (also known as the “crack house statute”) was not intended to limit the operations of public health facilities, but continued legal ambiguity makes it difficult for state health officials to gain support for supervised injection sites. In a related NEJM Perspective, two clinicians at a primary care and buprenorphine clinic in Chicago emphasized that these sites are desperately needed to save people’s lives:

We hand out naloxone, distribute cookers and syringes, and counsel our patients on safer injection practices — such as not injecting alone — but this work isn’t enough to keep them safe. In the clinic, we use a low-threshold model for prescribing buprenorphine to reduce harm and increase access to lifesaving medications for opioid use disorder, offering same-day buprenorphine initiation, van-based outreach, telehealth appointments, and recovery-support services. It still isn’t enough. Our patients continue to die in the largest numbers we’ve ever seen.

The largest numbers we’ve ever seen. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2021, more than 107,000 people died of a drug overdose, a 15% increase over the previous record high in 2020 and “roughly one U.S. overdose death every 5 minutes.” By publishing pieces that provide compelling rationales for opening supervised injection sites, the top three journals in medicine have made a statement that these effective public health interventions should be employed widely to reverse this terrible trend.

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