This past Sunday, Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his West Village apartment with a hypodermic needle in his arm. We cannot hope to attribute the cause of Hoffman’s death to any avoidable event. What we can do is suggest policies that will protect others from the same fate. It is time for New York City to introduce safe-injection facilities. The increasing rate of heroin overdoses demands that necessary and meaningful action be taken.
New York City has always been at the forefront of public health initiatives. Officials have already implemented syringe exchange programs in each of the boroughs, which provide clean needles in exchange for used ones, but these efforts are not enough. More direct assistance, which SIFs provide, would serve to address the problem. SIF clinics assist drug users in the injection of drugs obtained by other means. The facility staff does not actually administer the drug, but rather gives advice on safer injection methods, provides first aid when required and monitors patients to prevent overdoses.
SIFs are not a new concept. Switzerland and the Netherlands were both early adopters of heroin-assisted treatment and included them as part of their national drug policies in the early 2000s. Both countries have seen their heroin usage steadily decrease, with new heroin users in the Netherlands nearly non-existent. SIFs have consistently reduced dangerous injection behaviors and lowered the number of overdoses among users of the clinics. Furthermore, SIFs have regularly acted as pathways for drug users to seek rehab facilities and drug treatment programs.
The federal law obstructing the construction of SIFs, the Controlled Substances Act, was designed to prevent the creation of crack houses, not hinder the creation of facilities that may lower future drug use. Given the proven effectiveness of SIFs, it would be unlikely that any responsible federal government would try to derail a program of this kind.
We will never know if Hoffman’s death could have been prevented. Somebody of his stature probably would have not set foot in a public SIF. Nevertheless, New Yorkers have never been given the option. SIFs have been proven to work. They lower the risk to the drug-user and provide a path to treatment. Safe injection facilities are by no means a panacea, but they do lower the risk substantially. The introduction of SIFs would be a bold but necessary announcement from the mayor’s office.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Feb. 4 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at firstname.lastname@example.org.