Recently, the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, made national waves when the local government was sued by the federal government’s Justice Department for allowing an opioid safe house to open. The safe house was a supervised injection site organized by Safehouse, a nonprofit organization that is attempting to combat the ongoing opioid epidemic by providing addicted persons with a healthy and clean environment to use opiates while also providing withdrawal treatment, drug abuse education, and, ideally, a more effective path toward recovery.
The Opioid Crisis of America Put into Perspective
There has been an ongoing and worsening epidemic of opiate abuse across the entire country over the last decade. Users often begin their opiate addiction in an entirely legal manner. They are given legitimate prescriptions for opioids and other effective painkillers by their doctors and physicians to treat very real medical conditions. However, long term use of the drug can lead to anyone getting hooked.
When their prescriptions run dry, a lot of people have already developed a strong physical and psychological dependence on the drug. If they are suddenly cut off from their legitimate supply, they undergo painful withdrawals such as insatiable cravings, sleeplessness, unrelenting bouts of sweating, and other intolerable conditions.
To combat those symptoms, many users turn to the illegal drug market to get their chemical fix. However, taking unmonitored doses of opiates is extremely dangerous. Users can wind up overdoing it, leading to dangerous overdoses that land them in the hospital or worse.
Making matters even more complicated, the illegal market is filled to the brim with impure opioids and other unsafe painkillers. It isn’t uncommon for illegal painkillers to contain tainted substitute chemicals that are extremely dangerous and toxic. It’s also not uncommon for what starts out as an actual medical need for opiates to turn into an insatiable craving for getting high.
When users fall into the latter stage, they tend not to care all too much whether they are taking safe and medically-sound sources of painkillers and other drugs. They can purchase extremely unsafe opioids like heroin on the street much easier and for far less money. The problem is that drugs like heroin are extremely dangerous even when they are pure. Purity, of course, is not really the top concern for dealers doling out white powder on street corners. Users are often given drugs that are cut with a slew of other unsafe chemicals that increase their profits but take an even harsher toll on the people who are using them.
Perhaps the worst and most newsworthy of these substitutes is fentanyl, an opioid additive that is estimated to be up to thousands of times more potent than most legitimate forms of opioids prescribed by doctors. Due to its potency and relatively low cost, illegal drug dealers commonly add a dash of fentanyl to the opioids they sell in order to increase their profits. Unsuspecting users dose themselves with the drug expecting the same effect they got from their legitimate prescriptions. However, what they get instead is an extremely potent and toxic dose of fentanyl that instantly causes a dangerous overdose.
The Ongoing Opioid Crisis of Philadelphia and the Safehouse Story
As The Washington Post reports, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has been especially affected by the crisis, leading to the development of one of the most active and widespread illicit opioid markets in the nation. Thousands of opioid overdoses have ravaged the city throughout the last decade, with far too many leading to the early deaths of otherwise healthy individuals.
A multitude of federal and local government organizations have tried combating the nation’s ongoing drug abuse problem for decades. Their methods have included early drug education programs like DARE, ample requirements of proper drug usage for legitimate medical conditions to prescribers, and extremely careful monitoring and control of the prescribing of drugs that have a high potential for addiction and abuse, particularly opioids. However, despite all of these best efforts, the opioid epidemic has only gotten worse, proving that mere education and monitoring are not effective enough tools for preventing addiction.
Because of this, organizations such as Safehouse are getting involved. Regardless of how unconventional and counterproductive their methods may seem at first glance, they aim to combat the illicit drug market in new and effective ways such as providing safer, cleaner environments to users via supervised opioid injection sites. They also receive their substances from legitimate sources that are carefully controlled, tested, and monitored. This ensures that drug users are not unwittingly taking dangerous substitutes such as fentanyl while also ensuring that users are carefully monitored by trained professionals to prevent them from abusing and potentially overdosing on their drugs of choice.
The problem is that the federal government has a strict set of laws already in place that clashes with the creation of such programs and facilities as the Safehouse project of Philadelphia. That is why, before the Safehouse project could even get off of the ground, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Philadelphia, William M. McSwain, sued the Safehouse organization, blocking the opening of their new facility.
As he claimed, Safehouse and similar organizations across the city and country are violating the federal Controlled Substances Act by allowing the use of illicit drugs at their facilities. No matter how effective such programs may prove to be in treating addicted users, making them safer, preventing overdoses, and ultimately diminishing the negative impact of the opioid epidemic, federal law trumps such positive impacts and therefore takes precedence. It may seem counterproductive, but in a nation run by the rule of law, McSwain and the Justice Department seem to be in their legal right to denounce and prevent safe houses from providing treatment to addicted individuals if their methods require the allowance of illicit drug use.
Citizens Against the Creation of Supervised Opioid Injection Sites
It’s not fair to place all the blame on William M. McSwain, the Justice Department, and other interfering government agencies when it comes to the outlawing of Safehouse and similar organizations. Many citizens and other members of the community have also spoken out against such programs.
Many of these outspoken individuals are members of more prominent communities. While their neighborhoods aren’t ravaged by the illegal drug market, opioid abuse comes in many forms. It’s not uncommon for well-off and otherwise seemingly healthy individuals to fall victim to opioid addiction.
However, it’s not merely nosy neighbors who are speaking out against Safehouse and similar organizations. As local news organization Philly reports, many individuals in the community feel that turning the other cheek and giving addicts a free place to use their illicit drugs is a form of “giving up” the fight against dangerous drugs. It is their opinion that doing so will only increase the number of addicts throughout the community or simply allow struggling addicts to fall further down the rabbit hole of substance abuse.
For the time being, the discrepancy between federal law and the creation of drug safe houses means that only the denouncers will truly be heard. Those who support the creation of supervised opioid injection sites and other sanctioned programs where illicit substances are allowed in a controlled manner will have to advocate for their cause on a theoretical basis. They will have to reference the adoption of such programs in other nations like Amsterdam until United States federal laws concerning illegal drugs are vastly loosened.
The Origins of the Idea of Sanctioned Illicit Drug Use
The idea of the government and other official organizations providing illicit drug addicts with a safer, cleaner environment to potentially overcome their addictions is no new idea. A multitude of similar organizations dates way back into the early 20th century, with a number of them popping up throughout the 1960s and beyond. The popularity of beatnik culture and drug use, at that time, went hand-in-hand.
One of the most famous and recent popularizations of the idea that most readers are likely familiar with was born out of the award-winning HBO television show “The Wire”. The show is set in Baltimore, Maryland, which is, addition to Philadelphia, is by far one of the cities in the United States that has been affected the hardest by the illegal drug market, particularly in the case of heroin and opioid abuse.
In the story, a police commander named Bunny Colvin creates what he calls a “free zone” that dealers start to dub “Hamsterdam,” so named for its relation to the decriminalization of many illicit drugs in the city of Amsterdam. Colvin’s free-zone is a sanctioned block of rundown houses where dealers are given immunity to sell their substances and users are given immunity to use them.
Similar to real life, the fictional center uses clean needle exchanges, testing facilities, and drug abuse educators throughout the block to help keep everyone safe and try to help abusers overcome their addictions.
As the real city of Amsterdam has proven, decriminalizing and destigmatizing illicit drug use can be a very effective tool in reducing the risks to drug addicts as well as the damage the illegal drug market does to surrounding communities. That was the goal of Safehouse and other similar programs throughout Philadelphia and the nation. Unfortunately, as long as federal Substance Abuse Act laws clash with the implementation of such programs, we won’t know how effective they might be. In the meantime, the opioid crisis seems ripe to keep on flourishing, causing even more citizens to struggle with substance use.
What We Can Do in the Meantime
While we await changes to the current legislation regarding safe opioid-use spaces, we need to remember the individuals struggling with addiction. The problem is widespread throughout the U.S. In fact, 1 in 10 people struggle with substance use. If you or a loved one is struggling with opioid use disorder, it’s important to recognize the signs.
Signs of substance use disorder include:
- Spending a lot of time thinking about how to get the drug or using the drug
- Craving the drug
- Issues at school or work
- Continued use despite its effect on relationships
- Obtaining drugs in hazardous ways
- Tolerance to the drug
While these signs can seem troublesome, it’s important to remember that help is available. There are plenty of ways to treat substance use disorders. These include both inpatient and outpatient facilities. With an outpatient facility, you can receive treatment and not worry about taking time off of work.
Keep in mind that you and your loved ones are not alone in your struggles. Many people are available to help you treat your substance use disorder, so you can get back to living your life.