US to Study Controversial Idea for Drug Users

$5M will go toward looking at 2 'safe injection sites' in New York and Rhode Island
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted May 9, 2023 11:46 AM CDT
US to Study Controversial Idea for Drug Users
An overdose prevention specialist helps a client suffering addiction find a vein to inject intravenous drugs at OnPoint NYC in New York in 2022.   (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

For the first time, the US government will pay for a large study measuring whether overdoses can be prevented by so-called safe injection sites, places where people can use heroin and other illegal drugs and be revived if they take too much. As the AP reports, the grant provides more than $5 million over four years to New York University and Brown University to study two sites in New York City and one opening next year in Providence, Rhode Island. Researchers hope to enroll 1,000 adult drug users to study the sites' effects on overdoses, estimate their costs, and gauge potential savings for the health care and criminal justice systems. The universities announced the grant Monday, noting that the money won't be used to operate the sites.

With US drug overdose deaths reaching nearly 107,000 in 2021, supporters contend safe injection sites, also called overdose prevention centers, can save lives and connect people with addiction treatment, mental health services, and medical care. Opponents worry the sites encourage drug use and that they'll lead to the deterioration of surrounding neighborhoods. "There is a lot of discussion about overdose prevention centers, but ultimately, we need data to see if they are working or not, and what impact they may have on the community,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which awarded the grant. Sites operate in 14 countries, including Canada, Australia, and France, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, a group working for decriminalization and safe drug use policies.

In 2021, New York City opened the US' first publicly recognized safe injection site; Rhode Island became the first state to authorize them. States such as Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico have considered them. The governors of California and Vermont vetoed safe injection site bills last year, and Pennsylvania's Senate last week voted for a ban. The grant marks another move by the Biden administration toward harm reduction, a strategy focused on preventing death and illness in drug users while helping them get care, as opposed to punishment.

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The White House strategy is the first to stress harm reduction, and the DOJ has signaled it will allow safe injection sites. In December, the National Institutes of Health began studying programs offering services and supplies such as naloxone, a drug to reverse overdoses, and materials to test drugs for fentanyl, which is driving record numbers of ODs. (Read more safe injection sites stories.)

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