That city is planning to open “Safe Injection Sites” to help drug users use safely. It may sound strange, but a lot of countries do it, and experts say it saves lives. Should the same thing happen here in Connecticut? Some medical experts say it’s time. And a version of the plan is already up and running just down Interstate 95 in New York City.
At the bustling Washington Heights Corner Project on the North end of Manhattan, a friendly knock on the public bathroom door is to make sure the person on the other side isn’t dying. The Corner Project is a needle exchange, but they are also dipping their toe into the idea of supervised drug injection. They have public bathrooms where people sign up to get 15 minutes inside. The wait to get one is often two hours or more.
The staff doesn’t technically know what people are doing behind the bathroom door. Sometimes they are just warming up, or using the bathroom, but often they are injecting heroin. And often, they overdose.
The staff checks on them every five minutes, by knocking on the door, and asking if they are OK. Every week they save lives by using the opioid-reversing drug Narcan.
“Sometimes it can be once a week, sometimes it can be once every two weeks. Sometimes it can be a few times in a day. There have been days like that where there have been multiple overdoses in one day” said Corner Project staffer Jesse Reid.
The bathroom operation at the Corner Project is a watered-down version of full-blown safe injection sites, that run in a number of spots around the world, including Vancouver, British Columbia. There, doctors watch people do all types of drugs, making sure they don’t die.
Liz Evans is a nurse who helped found that clinic in Canada. She now runs the Corner Project in New York. “These sorts of alternatives, while they don’t sit comfortably with people, when people learn about them they make a lot of sense. They’ve been extremely well researched and they save lives” Evans said.
Daniel Placeres is a married father of three, who shoots heroin. He says they have saved his life in a Corner project bathroom four times. “Some people might say you are making it OK for me, but no it’s not. You are making it safer for me. Because if you don’t help me I’m going to go do it whether someone is around or not.
Dr. Jasleen Salwan is an internal medicine resident at Yale, and a vocal proponent of safe injection spaces. “The unfortunate reality of addiction is that it’s extremely physically powerful. As much as the ultimate goal is of any provider, any policy maker , any citizen is to get people to stop, frankly there is a long period of time where people are just not yet ready to stop. And if in the meantime we can stop them from overdosing, then we have done a good thing” Salwan said.
Republican State Senator Heather Somers (R – Griswold) is on the Public Health Committee. She says the idea of “Safe Injection Spaces” is new to her. And while she says she has trouble with the idea of it, what we are doing clearly isn’t working. And she says Safe Injection Spaces are worth talking about. “I struggle with the fact that we are allowing an illegal activity to occur, sort of turning our back on it, with no real push for recovery. On the other hand the pros are, these are folks who are at their lowest point in their life, they are acting and asking for help in a way by going to this place” Somers said.
Daniel Placeres says he has hope that this place, that has saved him more than once, will be the key to finally turning his life around. “I come and I use and I use and I use, but then there’s that time that maybe I don’t want to use. Maybe I want to go and talk to somebody” Placeres said.
Right now safe injection sites are operating in at least nine countries around the world. Along with Philadelphia, other U.S. cities like New York, San Francisco and Seattle are taking a hard look at them.