In light of America’s current opioid epidemic, the US government has fallen under immense pressure to come up with a solution. With more than two million Americans suffering from addiction to opioid street drugs and prescription pain medication, causing an average of 115 overdoses each day in 2016, the infamous ‘opioid crisis’ is certainly not an exaggeration. While Trump’s administration has willingly shelled out billions of dollars for initiatives focusing on ad campaigns, job seeker’s help and law enforcement support, one highly controversial measure has yet again divided the country. Safe injection sites, which have already been implemented in other countries, have fallen prey to both strong criticism and praise. Although their presence in the US seemed unlikely, unsurprisingly California seems to be paving the way having just passed a bill to start a three-year pilot programme in San Francisco.
There is no evidence that these sites, in which users can safely inject drugs monitored by healthcare professionals, are harmful or increase crime rates. However, a lack of harm does not mean a presence of improvement. I agree entirely that it is important to protect the lives of people at high risk of overdose, something that these sites can be commended for, but I don’t believe they are the way forward. Creating a safe haven for the abuse of illegal drugs not only normalises but potentially promotes dangerous behaviour. In addition to perpetuating the existing problem, they could also act as an advertisement for those at risk of developing an addiction. Enabling the safe misuse of illegal substances may save lives in the short-term, but it serves no purpose in combatting the issue on a long-term basis. In fact, there is no such thing as the ‘safe misuse’ of any drug, the term in itself being not only ironic but wildly paradoxical.
Both time and money would surely be better spent creating places that are actually safe; help centres, residential rehab facilities, access to free medical professionals etc. It seems to me, admittedly from an inexperienced outsider’s perspective, inefficacious and somewhat unethical to waste time on strategies that ultimately could increase the longevity of the problem. While the centres could reduce the number of overdoses, it is highly unlikely that a place where drug users can go to shoot up knowing they are protected will actually help them.
The treatment of the opioid crisis has raised even more provocative questions. The mild-mannered approach to the current problem, affecting primarily non-Hispanic white Americans lies in stark contrast to the methods used to tackle the crack cocaine epidemic that was founded mainly in African-American communities. While I obviously don’t advocate for the drug war on crack-cocaine, the disparity between creating a safe space to take drugs and the imprisonment of thousands of African-Americans for non-violent drug offences is blinding. While the new methods may not be racially charged, and in fact just a case of learning from mistakes, the compassion shown by the government in actually creating a safe haven for drug abuse is much more than a slap in the face to those who suffered previously. Cocaine users still do not receive the same treatment in America, and if the US government continues to blatantly highlight this legacy of racism it should prepare for some difficult and important questions instead of continuing to ignore them.