Safe Injection Sites Like New York's Are a Huge Mistake | Opinion

A few weeks ago, America received the horrifying news that over 100,000 people died from overdoses in 2020. To combat this crisis, New York City announced today that it is preparing to open its first safe injection site in an effort to curb the massive amount of overdoses. Social justice organizations are celebrating this as a big win, but as a recovering addict who has lost too many friends to overdoses to count, I have to disagree. Safe injection sites are not how we address this crisis; they're no better than putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound.

One can understand why safe injection sites seem like a good idea. The idea behind them is to give IV drug users a safe place to get high, where medical personnel can provide rapid response to overdoses which can be reversed with the life-saving medication Naloxone. These sites also offer clean needles to reduce the transmission of diseases. So you can understand why back in 2018, when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his mission to open safe injection sites throughout New York City, he called it "a smarter approach" to fighting drug addiction.

But this approach is actually deeply misguided. While it might reduce overdose deaths, it does nothing to curb addiction. The opposite: It will lead to higher addiction rates, increased crime, and no improvements in the quality of life for those struggling with addiction and their families.

I know this first hand. You don't fight drug addiction by making it easier for addicts to do drugs.

To truly fight this epidemic, we need to ask why people are turning to drugs in the first place. Nobody wakes up in the morning and randomly decides they want to stick a needle in their arm. And the reasons are not mysterious.

For starters, there is a mental health crisis in New York City. According to NYC.gov, one in five adult New Yorkers will most likely experience mental health disorders during any given year. On top of that, 8 percent of high school students report attempting suicide and 8 percent of the entire city's population will experience depression. And the link between mental illness and drug addiction is well established.

Free drugs given away outside police station
A group dedicated to promoting safe drug use and decriminalization held an event this week in which they reportedly distributed free drugs to active users. Above, a man uses heroin under a bridge where he lives with other addicts in Philadelphia, which has become a hub for heroin use. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Opening safe injection sites in New York do nothing to treat the underlying illness that will lead many New Yorkers and Americans more generally to drugs in the first place.

Moreover, the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have established the deep connection between economic anxiety and what they call "deaths of despair"—overdoses, suicides, and death from alcoholism. The economists specifically tie the opioid epidemic to downward mobility for working-class Americans and the absence of a functioning public health care system.

"I don't think you get those opioid epidemics in societies that are healthily flourishing," Deaton told Bloomberg recently. "What's happened for the White working class, which happened earlier for the Black working class, is that there was an erosion of the pillars that hold life up. That gave way to people trying to soothe the beast with drugs, with alcohol, possibly with food, and ultimately with suicide."

Is a safe injection site going to give someone a good job? Or long term high quality health care?

By opening safe injection sites, New York City isn't even giving people the option to quit entirely. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, it takes at least 90 days for treatment to be effective. Even with health insurance, you're lucky if your plan covers 30 days, and you still have to deal with increasingly high deductibles that many addicts can't afford.

New York's safe injection sites are a way of prolonging the problem—and even increasing the kind of criminality that surrounds drug use. And if the addicts of New York City are still turning to crime to fund their drug habit, is it really making anyone safer?

If New York City really wants to help, they'll increase access to mental health and addiction treatment while working day and night to improve the quality of life for all New Yorkers.

Chris Boutté is the host of The Rewired Soul podcast and author of HOPE and Caught in the Crossfire. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @TheRewiredSoul.

The views in this article are the writer's own.