You may have been hearing a lot of news lately about safe injection facilities or safer consumption spaces, since Philadelphia officials came out in support of implementing them in their city and San Francisco declared they will open two in July. But did you know that safer consumption spaces legislation, Senate Bill 288 and House Bill 326, are being discussed right now in Maryland? We need more momentum from community support to get it passed, so let’s all consider what safer consumption spaces could look like for Baltimore City.
Contrary to some thought, safer consumption spaces do not increase drug crimes or use in the community. In fact, it’s our current policies that force people who use drugs to hide in vacant buildings and public restrooms, leaving behind hazardous drug paraphernalia, that contribute to neighborhood distress. If we provide an indoor space for drug use with a needle exchange and proper drug equipment disposal, we can keep our neighborhoods cleaner, and connect people who are otherwise hard to reach with resources for HIV and Hepatitis C testing, health education, and referrals to drug treatment.
Furthermore, we have to acknowledge that new solutions are necessary to combat the drastic increase in fentanyl overdose deaths in the past year. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is fifty times more potent than heroin, and is often mixed with other drugs without the user’s knowledge. Saving lives from fentanyl overdose requires immediate overdose reversal action, which can be performed by safer consumption space staff. We would not only save lives, but also time and money for the health system and police department, allowing them to redirect their resources from overdose response to other City needs.
It’s also no secret that Baltimore’s heroin epidemic dates back before national attention came to the issue. The rise in overdose deaths in rural, white populations has changed the conversation on opioid use to treatment rather than punishment, even though “War on Drugs” policies have disproportionately incarcerated impoverished Black people in Baltimore City for decades. This political moment is an opportunity to implement policies, like safer consumption spaces, that foster racial justice by preventing people from entering the criminal justice system and promoting the humanity and dignity of people who use drugs.
It’s understandable that people have questions about safer consumption spaces, but we need to overcome the moral panic that stigmatizes people who use drugs instead of meeting them with compassion. We can’t force people to recover from addiction, just as we can’t force anyone to recover from any chronic disease. What we can do is offer safer consumption spaces as a way for people who use drugs to take steps toward creating positive change in their lives. Our leaders should not only take a hint from those in other similar U.S. cities, like Philadelphia, but we should make sure to engage affected communities in developing a plan for safer consumption spaces in Baltimore City.
Jenna Bluestein is pursuing her Master’s degree in public policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and is an intern with the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition. She currently lives in Baltimore City.
To join Jenna in her support for safer consumption spaces in Maryland, please write your elected officials about these important bills. Also, join us for Harm Reduction Advocacy Day on March 7th!