If you are a daily heroin user, it is almost a guarantee that you will experience an overdose. The first time I overdosed, I was all alone and barely escaped death. After several years of addiction that first started with prescription pain medication, heroin had become the only thing that would allow me to function. Without it, I would get uncontrollably sick, both physically and mentally. I desperately wanted to stop, but it would take several more overdoses and treatment attempts before I found sustained recovery.

I’m grateful—and lucky—that I didn’t become one of the 418 Maine people who died last year before they were able to find recovery. I also somehow managed to escape addiction without contracting Hepatitis C or any serious infections, even though I put myself in several high-risk situations and used unsafe injection methods. Substance use disorder is a treatable disease, and it’s unacceptable to allow those suffering from addiction to live or die based on chance. We have an opportunity right now to reduce harm to our community and save lives.

UNDERSTANDING WHO BENEFITS FROM SAFE INJECTION SITES

Safe injection sites serve the most vulnerable people in our community: our homeless population that suffers from substance use disorder, often in conjunction with other mental illness and a lack of resources. These members of our community don’t want to use in public spaces or in unsafe ways, but we leave them little choice.

Residents and local officials will often argue against these sites, claiming that they promote drug use and will create an environment that cultivates more crime. Research and experience refute these claims entirely. Peter Davidson, of the University of California in San Diego, conducted research and observed a facility similar to the one proposed in Portland. When asked by VOX about his experience, he said:

“People talked about using in the public eye and shooting up in a hurry between two cabs in the streets. They were very much aware of passersby — not just because it’s illegal, but because they’re aware that it’s not seen as a nice thing. They’re particularly terrified of being seen by someone’s children.”

Without a home or vehicle, many people are forced to crouch somewhere outside in unsanitary conditions, while often using recycled syringes and unsafe injection methods. The reality is that safe injection sites will result in fewer discarded needles on the streets, fewer overdose deaths, and dramatically decrease the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C.

If we are concerned about the increasing public costs associated with the treatment of our addicted and homeless population, then we need to objectively look at the solutions being presented to us. Safe injection sites reduce the public costs of treating those in crisis situations due to drug use.

Safe injection sites are not a new idea. There are more than 90 facilities in operation around the world, and with millions of supervised injections, there has never been a single fatal overdose—not one—ever. According to a study published in The Lancet, at the first safe injection site in North America that opened more than 15 years ago, there was an immediate 35 percent reduction in overdose deaths in the area surrounding the facility. Reducing the fatal overdose rate in the State of Maine by just 5% would save more than 20 lives each year.

Safe injection sites are not social clubs, and they don’t provide drugs. They are clean and organized medical facilities where clinicians and nurses give individual care to those who need it most. These sites provide an opportunity for us to reduce preventable deaths and allow treatment professionals to stay in contact with our most at-risk population.

LOOKING PAST THE STIGMA OF ADDICTION

Misrepresentation of safe injection sites by some has clouded the discussion recently, perpetuating stigma and false ideas regarding what a proposed safe-site would look like in Portland. WGME CBS 13 News has been one of the worst offenders, posting content solely aimed at instigating members of our community and further spreading fear and misunderstanding. In a recent social media post, WGME asked readers to react to an image that said: “Should Portland establish safe places for drug addicts to use?”

Source: WGME CBS 13 Facebook Page

As expected, the inflammatory and misleading question caused an uproar of negative comments. It’s disappointing to see a local news outlet use the most vulnerable and sick population of people in our community to attract more social media likes, shares, and comments. We need to do better—we owe it to the 1,066 Mainers who have died from an overdose in the past three years.

As someone in recovery, it’s disheartening when the same station asking me for soundbites and quoting my words, will also label me with terms like “drug addict” and eternalize the stigma of substance use disorder. We can’t claim to seek solutions to the opioid crisis in our state while simultaneously stigmatizing the population we claim to want to help.

I’m grateful that two other news stations in Portland, WMTW and WCSH, have both recognized the importance of language, and make an effort to use appropriate messaging. Thank you for putting your communities well-being ahead of social media engagement and website clicks.

OBJECTIVELY CONSIDERING ALL OPTIONS

Instead of arguing over how things should be, let’s instead recognize how they currently are, and then take action to improve our situation. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need safe injection sites in our communities. In the real world, they are necessary and will positively impact our community as a whole. We are in the midst of a public health crisis that is killing more Americans than both car accidents and guns.

I ask that we look at this proposal objectively and trust the research from 30 years of similar sites operating successfully. These facilities not only reduce harm to our community and reduce the public tax burden of addiction, it allows our most vulnerable population to get connected with clinicians and a pathway to recovery.

The most effective treatment for Substance Use Disorder is the frequent, consistent and long-term connection with healthy individuals and clinicians. Let’s not create additional barriers to sustained recovery by bolstering stigma and discouraging clinical treatment. If we can agree that addiction is a major public health crisis, and move with empathy, we can make a massive difference in our communities.

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