Philadelphia pursues supervised drug injection sites

Philadelphia is welcoming private organizations to set up medically supervised drug injection sites amid an unprecedented rise in overdose deaths in recent years, city officials announced Tuesday.

The walk-in facilities would also offer access to sterile needles, the opioid overdose-reversing drug naloxone, wound care and referral to social services.

There are currently no legally sanctioned supervised injection sites in the United States.

“Incidents of overdose have steadily increased to an alarming degree,” Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement Tuesday, describing the city’s move as a “bold action to help save lives.”

In 2016, the city recorded 907 overdose deaths, more than 80% of which involved opioids like heroin and fentanyl, according to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. This number is double what it was in 2013.

That same year, the state of Pennsylvania had the third highest number of drug overdose deaths in the country, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In December, health experts in Philadelphia released a review of the scientific evidence behind supervised injection sites that underlines their efficacy in preventing deaths and infections, such as HIV and hepatitis C. Up to 76 overdose deaths per year could be prevented with one site in Philadelphia, the report concludes, based in part on a 2008 study of North America’s first supervised injection site, in Vancouver.

Canada’s health department now lists more than two dozen approved sites for supervised injection on their website.

The city of Seattle, Washington is also planning to open and manage a supervised injection site, according to a report by Philadelphia officials. In contrast, Philadelphia is looking to private organizations to fund, operate and provide a location for these facilities. San Francisco and New York are also considering supervised sites.

In November, a delegation of Philadelphia officials visited both Vancouver and Seattle. The trip “really hit home” that an injection site would be “just one piece of the puzzle to address the opioid crisis,” said Eva Gladstein, Philadelphia’s deputy managing director of Health and Human Services.

Supervised injection sites have faced opposition in the past. Some believe that they implicitly condone drug use and lead to increased use.

“There is no safe way to inject heroin, fentanyl and carfentanyl,” Pennsylvania’s attorney general, Josh Shapiro, said in a statement Tuesday in response to the city’s announcement.

“Sanctioning a ‘safe injection site’ presents significant public safety concerns, and changes in state and federal law would need to occur for these sites to operate legally,” Shapiro said.

In support of the harm-reduction strategy, Dr. Thomas Farley, the city’s health commissioner, said in a statement, “We cannot just watch as our children, our parents, our brothers, and our sisters die of drug overdose.”

“We have to use every proven tool we can to save their lives until they recover from the grip of addiction,” he said.