Safe injection sites not the best way to fight heroin addiction

McPherson Square librarian Chera Kowalski poses with naloxone, which she had to use earlier in the day to save a person who overdosed on heroin.

A controversial proposal that seems unlikely to ever become a reality got the most attention when Mayor Kenney’s task force on the opioid crisis issued its report: designating safe sites where drug users can inject heroin under medical supervision.

Eight states and the District of Columbia now allow the recreational use of marijuana despite its still being illegal by federal law. Pending legislation would add Pennsylvania to those ranks, and marijuana possession has been downgraded as a crime in Philadelphia. But heroin is not marijuana. The potential consequences of its use are much greater.

Interviewed by staff writer Don Sapatkin, Drug Enforcement Administration special agent Patrick J. Trainor raised the question of liability if the city winks at some heroin use. “Say somebody goes to a safe injection site, gets in a car, is driving home on I-95 and overdoses and kills a family of six,” he said.

There’s also the question of where the safe injection sites would be located. The Kensington area has become a mecca for heroin addicts. Columnist Mike Newall recently wrote about the librarians at the McPherson Square Branch who necessarily have learned how to administer an antidote to addicts who overdose inside.

But that doesn’t mean Kensington should become the officially designated shooting gallery for addicts?

In fact, if there are going to be safe injection sites a strong case can be made for locating some in the suburban communities where many of the addicts nodding off on city streets, in parks, and libraries, grew up and got hooked on drugs.

That’s a reality acknowledged by officials in many of the towns trying to deal with the addicts who don’t go to the city to get high. Montgomery County had 253 overdose deaths last year; Bucks County had 185.

Task force ideas other than setting up safe injection sites would likely have much greater impact on overdose deaths in the city, which at more than 900 last year tripled its number of homicides. For example, it makes sense to ratchet up an ongoing advertising campaign to increase public awareness of the link between overly prescribed pain killers and heroin addiction.

Related to that, the task force also recommended that health insurance rules be established that would require prior authorization for opioid prescriptions and provide increased coverage for alternative pain treatment and addiction recovery. It also recommends providing more comprehensive drug treatment for Philadelphia prison inmates who are dealing with substance abuse.

More and better drug treatment opportunities throughout the region are essential. Appropriate measures to reduce overdoses should be accompanied by effective programs that provide a route out of addiction. Whatever that costs would be worth it.