California legislator pushes for safe injection sites

As states attempt to get a handle on the opioid crisis, California lawmaker Assembly Member Susan Talamantes Eggman has an unusual and often criticized approach: safe injection sites.

AB 186 would allow specific counties and cities to establish safer drug consumption programs until 2022. The pilot programs would allow people to safely inject pre-obtained drugs under medical supervision without fear of arrest or prosecution. The facilities would provide sterile needles, syringes, and disposal services.

Visitors to the sites would have access to immediate medical attention in the event of an overdose. Staff members would be able to provide referrals to addiction treatment and other social services.

“It’s treating addiction as a public health issue and getting people help rather than criminalizing it,” Eggman said.

There are currently no existing safe injection sites in the United States. Washington State is trying to create two safe injection sites, but has plenty of opposition.

Vancouver B.C. has the only safe injection site in North America, which has operated in 2003. Since opening, the site has had 4,922 overdose interventions without any deaths. In 2015, the site referred almost 500 site visitors to the adjoining detox treatment facility. A 2008 study found the site has saved an estimated $18 million in health costs.

Drug overdose fatalities have been on the rise in the United States. In California, deaths involving opioid prescription medications have increased over 16 percent since 2006.

But not everyone believes safe injection sites are the way to fight the opioid crisis. Critics of the sites often argue that they create a culture of tolerance for illegal drug use and do not actively fight addiction.

The California Police Chiefs Association opposes the bill because “while these locations may remedy immediate symptoms of drug use, such as public injection and litter, they fall short in supporting long-term healing.” The bill would also violate federal law.

The bill has support from the American Civil Liberties Union of California, the California Association of Alcohol and Drug Program Executives, and the California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals.

The bill passed its first hearing in the Assembly Health Committee at the end of March with a 9-4 vote. The bill has been referred to the Committee on Public Safety.