When I heard the news, I was so happy I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. At its annual meeting in mid-June, the American Medical Society endorsed the development of safe injection sites as a harm-reduction informed response to the drug opioid crisis. This has received almost no national coverage, so I hasten to share it with you now.
In safe sites, addicts can use their drugs in a medically supervised setting. Treatment is available but not required. The purpose is to save lives of those who would otherwise die from dirty needles and overdosing in back alleys with no one to help them.
It’s been over a year since I helped to organize a clergy visit to Vancouver, Canada, site of the only safe injection facility in North America. Participants in the visit from around the U.S. were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about what they witnessed.
Two months later I traveled to Ithaca, New York, to meet with clergy over the mayor’s proposal to create the very same kind of facility there. An interfaith group of over 30 clergy listened carefully. We didn’t take a poll. My sense was that the group was divided, some already in favor, others wanting to know more.
In the aftermath of these two visits, I had no doubt that someday such facilities would become an accepted way of responding to dire human need.
What I didn’t expect was that the often conservative American Medical Society would provide its endorsement so resoundingly and so soon. It took at least five years to pass medical marijuana in Illinois with doctors citing lack of AMA support.
Safe injection sites first appeared in Germany in 1988, and at least 100 facilities now exist in 9 countries, including Austria, Spain, France, and Switzerland. The HIV-AIDS epidemic in early 1980’s that provided the impetus. It was clear that providing clean needles saves lives. The development of facilities in which to use them under supervision was a logical extension of that concept.
The fact that 30 years later Vancouver is the only site in North America testifies to the how difficult it is to overcome prevailing social attitudes about drug users as immoral, and abstinence as the only road to recovery. But just as the AIDS crisis led to a breakthrough in the use of clean needles, the opioid crisis is prompting consideration of safe injection sites in the United States.
Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick hopes that the New York State legislature will authorize him to proceed this fall. California has approved plans for three sites. The Seattle City Council took similar action with respect to two facilities this spring. And plans are proceeding in Boston, and well as in Maryland and New Mexico.
The opposition is both predictable and may take time to overcome. It boils down to the notion that safe injection sites, and the concept of harm reduction more broadly, enable and sanction drug users.
In response – and at the risk of proof-texting (which is why I don’t use Biblical verses in these blogs very often) – the words of Jesus bear repeating: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” (Mark 2:17)
Safe injection sites are mercy, forgiveness, and compassion made manifest. This is the response that will prevail in the U.S. as it has elsewhere. It’s just that I didn’t expect the American Medical Association come around so soon. Their endorsement is worth shouting about.