Austin needs safe injection locations

Elizabeth Braaten

More than 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2016. Opioids — a class of drugs that includes heroin and pain relievers such as Vicodin, codeine and morphine that are legally available with a prescription — were involved in an estimated 42,249 of these deaths.

In October 2017, President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency. Since then, the federal government has taken no significant action to combat these drugs that cause more than 115 Americans to overdose each day. Thankfully, with their endorsement of safe injection sites, cities across the United States are beginning to take matters into their own hands. Austin should join them.

Safe injection sites are defined as facilities that provide a safe space for people to inject drugs they have acquired previously under the supervision of a staff trained to respond in the event of an overdose. The staff can provide clean needles and direct visitors to resources informing them of available treatment options. 

A  facility in Austin could become the first of its kind in Texas. With rates of opioid overdose deaths currently five times higher than they were in 1999, this is not just an option — It’s a necessity if we want to mitigate the effects of the opioid epidemic. 

Although these facilities are still not legal in the United States as the Trump administration threatens to prosecute cities that implement them, many cities are taking the initiative to open sites regardless. Seattle, Philadelphia and San Francisco have already approved openings of safe injection sites. This is for good reason, too — these sites have experienced overwhelmingly positive results in places like Vancouver.

The city of Vancouver opened its safe injection site in 2003, and studies since have shown that the implementation of this facility has been extremely effective. It is estimated that the site decreased the fatal overdose rate in its immediate vicinity by 35 percent since its opening and that it prevents 35 new cases of HIV each year.

Furthermore, 75 percent of individuals surveyed reported changing their injection practices because of the use of the facility, and another 56 percent said that they were practicing less unsafe syringe disposal. 

Not only do these facilities help to combat drug abuse in surrounding areas, they save lives by providing users with clean needles, which lower rates of HIV infection, as well as a supervised area where they can receive medical attention and communal assistance if they so choose. 

Drug use has long been treated in the United States as a criminal offense rather than a public health issue. With overdose rates skyrocketing across a country run by a federal government resolved to doing nothing, local and state governments must take action. 

By implementing a safe injection facility within its boundaries, Austin could become one of the first U.S. cities to make a substantial effort in combating the opioid epidemic. 

Braaten is an international relations and global studies junior from Conroe.