Local group pushes for safe place where addicts can use drugs, access treatment

Vancouver, B.C. built a safe injection site.

A relatively new organization hopes to build Oregon’s first safe-consumption site in the Rose City, where addicts can get clean supplies and use drugs while being supervised by medical professionals. It's an alternative way to fight the opioid crisis and reduce overdose deaths.

Sam Chapman founded Safer Spaces Portland just a few months ago, but says he’s already begun talking with city and county officials about a safe-consumption site.

The idea is nothing new. There are more than 100 such locations around the world, including a longstanding safe injection site in Vancouver, British Columbia known as Insite. Seattle has grappled with the idea for some time as well.

This comes at a time when opioid use has reached crisis levels across the United States. Two hundred forty-five people died from an opioid overdose last year in Oregon. While numbers have slowly been declining from their peak in 2011 when more than 300 people died from an overdose, the number of deaths is significantly higher than in the early 2000s.

“I don't think it's a conversation about whether people are using or not. They are using. Whether we like it or not,” said Chapman. “The question is, do we want to see this as a health problem or a criminal problem? Safer Spaces Portland believes this is a health problem. As a health problem, we need to be able to provide treatment options in a safe place where people feel like they're not going to get in trouble for treatment.”

Chapman envisions a location where an addict can check in with the front desk, get clean supplies, and use drugs in an open room while a medical professional supervises. The medical professional, likely a nurse, would ensure that the user does not improperly use the supplies and in case of an overdose, will be there to immediately treat the user.

“The evidence is there. There are safe consumption spaces, or safe injection spaces, all over the world. Over 100. And there has not been one fatal overdose in any of these places. I think that says a lot,” said Chapman.

Chapman says they would also offer the user access to treatment options at the location. He says an addict is more likely to get treatment if they can do so on their own terms rather than being forced into it.

Chapman says a safe-consumption site would also limit the spread of diseases like HIV or hepatitis C.

Dennis McCarty is a professor at the OHSU-PSU College of Public Health. He says a safe-consumption site is a good public health decision.

“There are well known injection sites in Southeast Portland, Southwest Portland, all around the community. The drug users are there. The question is can we do it in a safer environment, a better environment,” said McCarty.

Critics have several concerns, including location of the safe-consumption site, the funding, and the idea that this is condoning drug use.

Laurie Sims, a Portland resident, says she doesn’t support a safe injection site in Portland because it would enable users. She would rather Portland wait for another city in the United States to try it out before Portland adopts the idea.

“Shouldn't we let somebody else pioneer it to see the pros and cons, and see what we need to do to tweak it or make it better?” asked Sims.

Michael Cox, a spokesperson for Mayor Ted Wheeler said, “We’ve read the studies. There is evidence that safe consumption spaces save lives while reducing the public nuisance arising from open drug use. While we have not committed to a specific direction, we are committed to evaluating this idea.”

Chapman says if all goes according to plan, there could be a safe-consumption site in Portland within the next year. He says they would try and put one close to those who need it most. He says they would likely look for private funding to start off with.

McCarty says there would likely be legal challenges to this, but it would be possible to bring a safe-consumption site to Portland.

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