Legal drug use centers: concept comes to Buffalo

May 2, 2017

As Western New York and the nation deals with an opioid crisis, a group of drug reform advocates, former users and health care professionals have launched an effort to bring to New York State facilities where addicts can consume their drug of choice in a safe, secure and supervised environment.

In the 19th century there used to be opium dens - places where opium users could legally purchase and smoke drugs in a relaxed setting.

Credit Drug Policy Alliance

Today's concept is a drug consumption center, sometimes called an injection center. Unlike in days gone by, these facilities are not legal in New York State or the United States. In fact, the Drug Policy Alliance advocating the centers says there are only two in North America and they are both in Canada.

Insite was the first to open in North America - in Vancouver, BC some 15 years ago. Addicts cannot purchase drugs there. However, they can smoke, down pills or shoot up with health professionals on hand.

"A safer consumption space is a place where people can legally consumer previously purchased illicit drugs and health care professionals can help participants to make their drug use safer," explained Alliance State Policy Director Kassandra Frederique. "So what that means is we're trying to save lives."

As overdose deaths are increasing, Frederique argued the centers help addicts feel less isolated and stigmatized so they will feel comfortable enough to get help.

"They'll be able to talk to professionals about the things that are making their life and use chaotic, housing, counseling, food, any mental health issues they may have, any primary care issues and really try to save people's lives," she said.

The Alliance will display a pop-up exhibit and be available to answer questions in Lafayette Square Wednesday from 1-5 p.m. as part of its 10-city "Safe Shape" tour across the state. From 6-8 p.m. at the Lafayette Hotel, the Alliance will be showing a film about Insite, followed by a panel discussion led by center health professionals.

"I think what people don't understand is that safer consumption centers are effective in reducing risky behaviors associated with Hepatitis B and HIV infection, preventing fatal opioid overdoses and injection-related hospitalizations, decreasing improper syringe disposal and improving public order, increasing access to health education and awareness and a wealth of social services," Frederique said.   

She likened the unconventional approach to drug addiction to needle exchanges that became necessary to fight the spread of HIV and good samaritan laws that allow drug users to report an overdose without fear of being arrested.

"It does not increase crime. It does not increase relapse or decrease rehabilitation," Frederique argued. "In fact, Insite has been shown to increase people's admission to drug treatment by 35 percent. So this is one of the things people don't understand and I think it's really important for them with questions to come out."

Safe Shape Tour - Reform Conference from Sawbuck Productions, Inc. on Vimeo.