For over a year, officials in Vermont’s most populous county and the state have been considering the possibility of creating safe injection sites as a means to curb the growing opioid crisis. This week, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote that such plans are not solutions and the Department of Justice is ready to act against communities that create such facilities. The move is not deterring efforts in Burlington.
In an opinion piece in Monday’s New York Times, Rosenstein writes that so-called safe injection sites, where addicts go to inject themselves but medical personel oversee their activity, are dangerous and are making the opioid crisis worse. He writes, “.. staff members help people abuse drugs by providing needles and stand ready to resuscitate addicts who overdose.” And rather than making drug use safer such sites “…actually create serious public safety risks…”
In 2017 Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George created a commission to study the potential and the ramifications of creating safe injection sites. In November she released a report finding such sites do reduce opioid overdose risk and increase treatment. Vermont Cares Associate Director Theresa Vezina was a member of the Safe Injection Site Commission. She says the opinion piece feeds into common fears. "There are over 120 different safe consumption sites around the world in 12 different countries and because of those sites we do have that evidence-based peer-reviewed studies that show that people actually are more likely to enter into substance use disorder treatment. There have been zero overdose deaths at any safe consumption site in the world and those are some of the things that he was saying don’t happen because of safe injection facilities.”
Vermont state Senator Chris Pearson, a Progressive-Democrat, is disappointed to see Rosenstein come out against what he believes is a positive effort. “It’s disappointing to see the federal government step in and try to shut down a very effective harm reduction solution before it’s even taking hold in this country. But the data is very clear that supervised injection sites actually save lives. They’re instrumental in getting a whole segment of addicts into treatment.”
Rosenstein warned communities that safe injection sites are illegal and “…cities and counties should expect the Department of Justice to meet the opening of any injection site with swift and aggressive action.”
Pearson had introduced legislation to limit any criminal liability for use or possession of drugs at supervised facilities. “The entire debate even the short debate that we had last session did focus on the implications of federal law. And so clearly the Justice Department is creating a clear position that they are not open to exploring this and you know we’ll have to see exactly what that means. But it might well slow down Vermont’s effort at harm reduction and getting more people into treatment and I think that’s a disingenuous approach to what is clearly tearing many families and communities apart.”
Vezina says advocates all think about the legal implications of the safe injection site concept. “When you think about the history of syringe exchange programs they also were illegal and still are illegal in many states. But people went out there and did the outreach and did the work anyway because it was so needed. And now syringe service programs are very well accepted. So I look at this as being a similar path in history and in 20 years we may be in a very different place talking about this.”
The link to Rosenstein’s op-ed: