On January 23, Philadelphia city officials announced their plan to become the first city in the US to establish safe injection sites for opioid users. Such sites would allow drug users to shoot up under a doctor’s watchful eye. The doctor would administer a medication called naloxone in the event of an overdose. The site would also provide sterile needles and other clean equipment.
According to city officials, a single safe injection site, more formally known as a “comprehensive user engagement site,” could save between 24 and 76 lives per year. They could also prevent as many as 213 cases of hepatitis C and 18 cases of HIV.
Safe injection sites, which exist in Europe and Canada, are designed to save lives. Philadelphia has the highest death opioid rate among US large cities – and it has been increasing. In fact, over the past four years, the number of fatal overdoses has more than doubled. Over 1200 people died from opioid overdoses in 2017, and that death toll was one-third higher than that of 2016.
The city government won’t run the safe injection sites. Instead, they’ll hire a private company to operate the sites.
While planning the sites, Philadelphia officials visited Vancouver in British Columbia which has had safe injection sites for over a decade. They also visited Seattle, Washington, whose leaders are also planning to establish a safe injection site.
Based on their observations, the task force put together a list of recommendations. For example, safe injection sites should provide certain medical and social services. The sites also need to be easy for users to reach.
The operators of the sites will also have to work with the police and emergency workers in some fashion. Adam Thiel, the Fire Commissioner, was at first opposed to the sites, but changed his mind after visiting the sites in Vancouver. He now believes the safe injection sites could save lives. The Police Commissioner Richard Ross was “adamantly opposed” to the sites, but is now more open to the idea. He has admitted that part of his skepticism is due to his uncertainty as to how the police should handle safe injection sites.
The task force has also distributed 35,000 doses of naloxone and advised local healthcare providers to limit the prescriptions of opioid painkillers. Similarly, they have launched a media campaign describing the dangers of prescription painkillers.