A not-for-profit in Philadelphia has this week detailed plans to open a supervised drug injection centre in the city.
Drugs have long been one of the US’ biggest issues, from international drug trafficking and the “War on Drugs” during the Reagan and Nixon administration to dealing with addiction. Usually, drug offences carry heavy charges including up to 10 years imprisonment for the most serious of crimes. However, for addicts, imprisonment doesn’t appear to be the answer with rates of reoffending soaring year on year.
In Philadelphia, one neighbourhood was nicknamed the ‘Walmart of Heroin’ due to the ease of access to the narcotic drug, making Philadelphia one of the largest open-air narcotics market on the East Coast of the USA. Prisons became the largest drug treatment sites in the city for cases involving heroin. However, more recently things have begun to change. Philadelphia is to become home to the first medically supervised drug injection centre in the US in an attempt to reduce use.
The opening of the centre had been put on hold after US Attorney William McSwain said that the plans violated a 1980s-era drug law known as the “crackhouse statute”. The local federal judge has clarified that the project will not violate drug laws because of its aim to treat drug addiction and cut the crime rate. However, this hasn’t come without resistance from local residents who fear the proximity of the Safehouse to local amenities including a daycare centre, shops and restaurants. Some are concerned with the potential for an increase in crime and discarded needles. Fortunately for the organisers of the Safehouse, there is wide-reaching administrative support, including from the Democratic mayor, Jim Kenney, and district attorney, Larry Krasner.
What is a Safehouse?
Safehouses are medically supervised drug injection centres where drug users can use illegal drugs and be supported in the case of an overdose. They provide drug users with clean needles and equipment, medical care and referral services to help drug users reach sobriety. Although new to the US, there have been many examples of successful Safehouse projects in Canada and parts of Europe, where they were set up in the 1980s to control the HIV/AIDs epidemic.
In the UK, Safehouses or Drug Consumption Rooms are heavily supported by a number of liberal think-tanks including the Adam Smith Institute. Although there are currently no Drug Consumption Rooms in the UK, there have been plans proposed for areas affected by heavy drug use, including parts of Wales, Bristol and Glasgow.
Do Safehouses reduce drug use?
There is a lot of evidence of how have reduced or potentially accounted for a reduction in some of the consequences of drug use.
According to a report by Jarryd Bartle, the services available to drug users make it more likely that Drug Consumption Rooms can be a force for good. Key findings have found that DCRs reduce drug-related deaths due to overdosing, especially as on-hand medical professionals can reverse an overdose. They have reduced the number of emergency call-outs relating to drugs, reduced public injecting and litter, increased referrals to drug treatment centres, encouraged hygienic and safe use among users and reduced needle sharing.
His report also details a study that was done by the Glasgow City Integration Joint Board from Health and Social Care Partnership in 2017. The data analysed found that 350 people in the local area accounted for 1587 Emergency Department attendances, 3743 inpatient bed days, 19-day case admissions and a total resources use for all activity in acute hospitals over the 2-year study amounting to £1.7 million. Therefore the evidence of DCRs reducing fatalities relating to drugs could have a positive economic impact as well.
What does this mean for Philadephia?
Philadelphia is one of the most notorious cities for narcotic drug use on the East Coast. Approximately 1100 people die each year in Philadelphia from drug overdoses and pressure has endlessly mounted on law enforcement to not only manage drug use but treat addicts.
The introduction of Safehouse could reduce this number significantly while providing more effective medical care for addicts, potentially resulting in permanent sobriety for thousands.
For those in opposition to the plans, many volunteers for the project have encouraged local residents to take a collaborative and cooperative approach to the introduction of a Safehouse, particularly in richer parts of the city where the problem isn’t often seen.