03 Jul New Law Would Allow Supervised Injection Sites in Ireland
New legislation is being drafted that would introduce medically supervised injection sites for heroin abusers in Ireland. Although there are many potential benefits to the approach, there are understandable criticisms, and the debate cuts to the heart of the larger issue regarding the role of harm reduction in reducing the drug problem around the world. The legislation was proposed once before and was shot down almost immediately, but the new draft of the legislation might have the power to change minds. The approach has already been instituted in Canada, and it’s likely to become more popular in the U.S. and around the world in response to rising heroin abuse.
What Are Supervised Injection Sites?
Supervised injection sites are a logical extension of needle exchange programs in many ways. Needle exchange programs provide clean needles for injecting drug users to reduce their risk of contracting blood-borne diseases like HIV, and supervised injection sites provide clean needles for the same reason. However, the injection sites take things further by providing a safe room for drug users to inject drugs they’ve obtained previously, all the while supervised by a medical professional.
The premise is that people who possess a drug like heroin are going to take it anyway, and it’s better to enable them to do it as safely as possible rather than leaving them unsupervised or even shooting up on the street. Not only does it keep injecting drug users off the streets, it also means they are less likely to damage their veins and any potential overdoses can be dealt with immediately. It’s a “harm reduction” approach because it aims to reduce the damage caused by drug use while not mandating that the individual attempt to become abstinent. Injection centers are used to help people in need get into treatment, but it isn’t a requirement for using the service.
Legislation in Ireland
Former Lord Mayor Oisin Quinn suggested the legislation in Ireland in 2013, but the idea was immediately rejected on the basis that heroin possession is illegal. This criticism clearly misses the point of such centers, and two groups—the Ana Liffey Drug Project and the Voluntary Assistant Scheme of the Bar Council of Ireland—have been working together since the summer of 2014 to put together a draft version of the legislation. A committee of seven barristers is drafting the legislation, which aims to establish a legal framework under which such centers would be able to operate.
Director of the Ana Liffey Drug Project Tony Duffin commented that, “The provision of [medically supervised injection centers] is part of the primary healthcare responses of many countries when it comes to addressing public injecting. We believe it should be the same in Ireland.”
Evidence on Supervised Injection Sites
Vancouver has been home to a supervised injection site (Insite) for more than 10 years, and the evidence collected over a decade shows that the impact has been positive. Over 30 peer-reviewed studies have been conducted, showing that Insite encourages more people to enter addiction treatment, reduces the transmission of diseases and saves money when it comes to healthcare costs. Illicit and injecting drug use has decreased overall and HIV infection due to injecting drug use has fallen markedly. Most crucially, a 2011 study showed that overdose deaths near Insite have been reduced by 35 percent. Despite concerns, the evidence consistently shows that providing such facilities doesn’t increase crime and it doesn’t encourage drug use.
Supervised Injection Sites in North America
Thanks to the success of the Insite program, many health organizations in Canada—including the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Public Health Association—have declared their support for the program and similar measures. The success of the approach has led groups like the Drug Policy Alliance to advocate for similar facilities to be opened in the U.S., with the group lobbying for a program to be tested in New York City and San Francisco.
Harm Reduction Isn’t Ideal, but It Saves Lives
The opposition to supervised injection sites and harm reduction is understandable—after all, it does allow drug use to continue, even if it encourages people to attend treatment as well. However, if you can accept the unpleasant truth that some people continue to use drugs despite the abundant negative consequences and the benefits of abstinence, it seems nothing short of cruel to pass up an opportunity to reduce the spread of HIV and bring overdose rates down.
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