Progress in Preventing Drug Deaths: A Philadelphia Story

Tom Houseman Marijuana Legalization

 By Tom Houseman

You might be surprised to learn that the most dangerous aspects of heroin use have little to do with the drug itself. Heroin injection’s dangers are largely driven by the risk of overdose (especially if the user is unsure of the potency of the particular dose being taken) and the use of dirty needles leading to infections, HIV, and Hepatitis C. Harm reduction is a strategy to reduce those risks, ensuring that substance use disorder is not a death sentence, and that someone who uses drugs gets the support they need to receive the treatment that is right for them. It is easy to shame and condemn a drug addict, but if we want to help them live, instead of just letting them die, we need to do more.

Providing a facility in which people can safely inject under supervision of a medical professional would drastically reduce these risks and save lives, but currently no such facility exists in the United States. You can read about North America’s first safe injection site, Insite, in our review of the book Fighting for Space. Insite staff have overdosed thousands of drug overdoses, and not a single death has occurred. In addition, when heroin users have access to a safe injection facility, rates of HIV and Hepatitis C go down, as do the number of publicly discarded needles.

Such a facility would have an enormously positive impact in the United States, yet those who think that these facilities incentivize drug use (they don’t) have ensured that none exist. As a result, those who inject drugs are forced to reuse needles, inject with dirty water, and rush their injection to avoid being caught and arrested. Instead of trying to help those with substance use disorders, too many are only looking for a way to ignore drug users or punish them.

Sheetz, a chain of convenience stores in and around Pennsylvania, recently announced that, in an attempt to drive away drug users, they will be replacing all of the lights in their bathrooms with blue bulbs. Because veins are more difficult to locate under blue light, the injection process is harder and more dangerous. While it makes sense that a business would not want illegal activity to take place on its premises, this decision shows how desperately safe injection sites are needed in areas with high rates of heroin use. Overdose deaths in Pennsylvania increased by 37 percent in 2016 to a rate of nearly thirteen deaths per day. In addition, 1,170 people were diagnosed with HIV in Pennsylvania in 2015, and rates of Hepatitis C infections increased by 233 percent.

Fortunately, progress is finally being made. On January 23rd, city officials in Philadelphia announced their support for the creation of a safe injection site within the city, the first step in what will likely be a long and legally complicated process. With one of the most liberal District Attorneys in the country, and a police commissioner who was once “adamantly against” such a site but who allowed the evidence to sway him, Philadelphia could be the one of the first cities in the country to open a safe injection site. San Francisco has plans to open a facility in July, while plans are also being discussed in Denver, Seattle, Baltimore, and New York City.

One would hope that the religious communities in Philadelphia would support such an act of compassion and charity, seeing it as a way to support members of their community who are struggling with substance abuse. Yet one week after the safe injection site proposal received the approval of city officials, an opinion piece by Gina Christian for the website Catholic Philly rejected the notion of such charity, calling it “a new low” for the city’s efforts to help addicts, and writing that “God would appear to disagree” with harm reduction measures. Armed with inaccurate data and a quote from Catechism of the Catholic Church 2291 on the grave sin of drug use, Ms. Christian says that the real solution to the plight of heroin addicts is to “put the needle down now – forever.”

This attitude, in addition to showing a complete misunderstanding of how challenging it can be to struggle with addiction, seems to have little in common with a Christ figure who “comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). Harm reduction techniques, including safe injection sites, are a way to meet addicts at the place in their addiction where they are, rather than forcing them to adhere to unrealistically strict rules before we offer them help. Instead of seeing addiction as “a deal with the devil,” as Miss Christian does, doesn’t it make more sense to see it as a disease, and to offer those stricken with it any help that we can?