KCBS Radio

Model Aims To Boost Support For Supervised Drug Injection Site

Jenna Lane
August 29, 2018 - 8:34 am

SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS Radio) — A sold-out exhibit in San Francisco this week shows what it could be like if the city's estimated 22,500 injection drug users had a medically supervised place to shoot up. 

Users who inject drugs helped design the demonstration hosted by the nonprofit GLIDE, and their voices are part of it. Visitors can sit down at a model injection booth, put on headphones, and listen to tales about addiction. 

“There’s not one of us out here who chose to be a homeless dope fiend. There’s not a single one of us who chose to have to, like, shoot drugs in their f—ing neck on the street corner just to feel okay," said "Mike." In his recording, he described a daily routine of seeking three or four hits a day to ward off sickness from withdrawal before sleeping on the streets of the Tenderloin. 

Another user named "Alice" described the inherent risk of locking herself in bathroom stalls to get high by injecting into the femoral artery of her thigh. 

“If you’re in a bathroom where they won’t realize, like if you’re at the mall and they have those full stalls, they won’t realize that you’ve gone out,” she said about the danger of overdosing. “It would be really nice to have the safe injection site where I wouldn’t have to go into a bathroom and risk, you know, my life.”

The demonstration site includes a desk where users would get clean needles and other injection supplies before sitting down at metal tables. Each has a mirror on the wall that would help staff identify anyone in need of medical intervention. 

In one of the first tour groups was a pair of retired emergency room nurses who liked what they saw.

“It’s going to save lives,” said Sybil Judd of medically supervised drug injection . “There are people there who can treat them and intervene if there’s a problem with respiratory depression or anything.”

“Heroin will bring this beautiful city down if we do not make this work now,” her colleague Jackie Aiken declared. “I feel that strongly about it.”

Not everyone agrees. Later this week, GLIDE’s Clinical Director Kenneth Kim is expecting a group he described as “Spanish-speaking moms” who have opposed the idea of safe injection facilities but are interested in getting a firsthand look. 

The exhibit comes at a time that San Francisco officials are considering becoming the first city in the United States to open a supervised injection site. With heroin and opioid deaths skyrocketing to more than 49,000 in 2017, several cities including, Seattle and Philadelphia, are also mulling the idea of offering injection sites. 

Mayor London Breed, a longtime supporter, will tour the model on Wednesday and call on Gov. Jerry Brown to sign Assembly Bill 186 into law. It would allow San Francisco to try safe injection services — which are illegal under federal law — in a three-year pilot program.

“Safe injection sites save lives,” Breed said in a statement when the state Legislature passed AB 186. “We are in a public health crisis and this bill will help us by preventing overdoses while connecting people to medical care that can help treat their addiction. Here in San Francisco, I am joining GLIDE to present a model safe injection site to show that we can implement these public health facilities in a safe, clean, and responsible manner that will benefit both our community and those suffering on our streets.”

The exhibit's organizers will monitor if the tour changes the minds of visitors about the controversial program. 

Everyone who comes is invited to drop a color-coded card in a box — before the tour and afterward. Red is for opponents of safe injection. Yellow is for the undecided, and supporters pick green.

“I think we’re probably going to see a lot more yellows than we are reds,” Kim predicted. “I think people that are sort of ambivalent about it, who are like, ‘I get the idea, I get harm reduction, I’m just not convinced.’”

To prove their point, tour guides said that harm reduction for addiction is similar to other everyday safety measures. 

“Harm reduction is not just having to do with drugs,” said one guide. “It’s wearing a bike helmet when you ride your bike. Putting on a seat belt.”

“I can go to a bar,” another guide added, “and sit down and have several drinks in a very safe place. It depends on the bar, actually. But generally speaking, that is a safe consumption place for alcohol.”