Mock safe injection facility stirs conversation on new approach to the opioid epidemic
Buffalo’s Lafayette Square was host, on Wednesday afternoon, to the latest stop in a campaign to educate New Yorkers on a potential new tool in the fight against drug use - a tool that is drawing mixed opinions.
In a green tent just off Main Street, passersby got the opportunity to experience safe injection facilities.
“These are places where people can come in with pre-obtained substances and consume them under the medical supervision of health care professionals,” explained Kassandra Frederique, New York State director of the Drug Policy Alliance, and organizer of the mobile display.
In addition to medical supervision, Frederique said drug users who come into SIFs are surrounded by peers in a safe environment. They’re offered sterile equipment at a supply station, a hygienic space with professional supervision where they can administer their drugs, and a “chill room” where patrons can ride out their high for as long as they need. The facilities are stocked with the overdose antidote Narcan, as well as access to health care services, referrals to housing, and – what advocates consider to be one of the most important – drug treatment options.
“We’re in the middle of an opioid crisis where people are dying alone in bathrooms, in parks, in restaurant bathrooms, in their homes – because they’re isolated, because they don’t have information, because they’re full of shame and stigma,” said Frederique. “These places serve as a beacon of light where they can come in and be met with professionals that care more about their lives and less about what they do.”
Frederique said facilities in other parts of the world – including Canada – have led to reductions in overdose deaths. She said the same would be true if they are allowed in places like Erie County, which saw 288 deaths from opioids in 2016 – a rise of 32 from the previous year.
But SIFs aren’t yet legal in New York, which is why the mock up is visiting ten cities on the “Safe Shape" Tour, with advocates trying to educate New Yorkers and start a conversation.
While the display in Lafayette Square looked like a tent with open doors and windows, Frederique said SIFs could take whatever form the community prefers.
“It could look like a pop-up tent, it could look like a stand-alone building, or it could look like incorporating [SIF] services into an already existing service agency that already services people that use drugs,” said Frederique.
While Frederique and her fellow advocates have plenty of reasons why SIFs are a viable option, not everyone who passed by the tent on Wednesday was convinced.
Amy Amaro of Lackawanna got into a friendly, but heated debate with one of the tour’s staff. Amaro said she’s been surrounded by people with drug addiction and those who have been its victims all her life. She said she wasn’t comfortable taking the tour and doesn’t like what SIFs may endorse.
“If somebody is going to overdose and somebody else is going to rush to their rescue to save them, that’s sort of giving them a green light to go ahead and do it again. Maybe next time do it bigger and better,” said Amaro.
Emma Fabian, director of substance user health policy at Buffalo-based Evergreen Health, was on-hand at the SIF mock-up with hopes for an honest conversation about a comprehensive public health approach to the opioid epidemic. She said many people on the street want to know how soon safe injection facilities – or safe consumption spaces, as she refers to them – will be able to be opened in New York State.
“Folks also want to know how they work, if they are successful in saving lives. And of course, the answer is overwhelmingly yes – safe consumption spaces do save lives,” said Fabian.
Fabian recalled decades ago, when opening syringe exchange programs was a topic of debate, much like SIFs are today. Now, according to Fabian, syringe exchanges are the primary way that active drug users receive health care services, including at Evergreen Health.
With the conversation around SIFs already begun, and groups like the Drug Policy Alliance advocating in Albany, Fabian thinks it’s only a matter of how and when SIFs will become legal.