Amid the always-raucous debate about illegal drug policy in the United States, most everyone agrees on at least one thing: our nation’s war on drugs, which began in the 1960s, is a failure. Overdose deaths are at all time highs. Millions of non-violent drug offenders fill the prisons and, yet, there is still no shortage of illicit narcotics, either smuggled across the border or manufactured here at home.
In an attempt to step around these failed policies, Boston and other cities, have embraced harm reduction as a more fitting approach.
The Supportive Place for Observation and Treatment (SPOT), created by Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program (BHCHP), provides “medical monitoring” for people “who are over-sedated from the use of substances,” according to its website.
Though SPOT can only serve eight to 10 people at a time, these are people at a high risk for overdose that might otherwise use drugs in public parks, alleyways or street corners.
Prescription painkillers, along with heroin abuse, kills 78 people a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Boston has been hit particularly hard with a 50 percent increase in opioid related deaths from 2014 to 2015.
What Are Examples of Harm Reduction Programs?
Harm reduction models work to lessen the adverse health, social and economic consequences of drug abuse without necessarily requiring abstinence from drugs. These programs can include some of the following:
- Medical supervision and examination
- Needle exchange programs
- On-site injection facilities
- Drug education and counseling
- Job training
- Social workers that help users find available beds in treatment centers
What Countries Offer Safe Injection Rooms for Addicts?
Several different countries have enacted policies that approach drug abuse as a medical condition rather than a criminal one. In the process, there is a reduction in the spread of diseases, such as hepatitis and HIV, as well as a decreased number of fatal overdoses and a pathway to treatment for those that want help.
- Vancouver, British Columbia, in Canada, opened its first supervised injection site in 2003, dubbed Insite, to widespread criticism. There are now several facilities, and officials report that addicts who use safe-injection sites are 30 percent more likely to receive treatment than those who do not.
- Probably one of the first countries to institute harm reduction measures was Switzerland, which opened injection rooms for addicts in the 1980s as a response to the AIDS epidemic.
In April 2016, the Mayor of Ithaca, N.Y., Even Svante L. Myrick, proposed a supervised injection site in the city where users could legally inject heroin. Myrick knows addiction up close and personal. As a child, his father battled an addiction to crack-cocaine. Critics of his four-part plan have called it a “harebrained” idea, but other city officials, including the county’s District Attorney, Gwen Wilkinson, are throwing their support behind it.
“I learned at a very young age that this was a disease and a powerful one,” the mayor told the New York Times. “I’m just glad people are talking about it. This has been a quiet epidemic for far too long.”
In Boston, SPOT estimates its facility is responding to anywhere from two to five overdoses every week. Officials at BHCHP, in a statement, referred to the center as “one part of our larger response to lessen the impact of the opioid crisis on our patients, staff and the neighborhood.”
Despite the protests of harm- reduction opponents, the movement is gaining momentum. Programs like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), in Seattle, Washington, continue to seek alternatives to imprisoning those living with addiction. A war on drugs only causes collateral damage. Harm reduction is a compassionate approach to the disease of addiction. It is a middle ground that keeps people alive until they’re able to accept help.