SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — City health officials took steps yesterday toward opening the nation’s first legal safe-injection room, where addicts could shoot up heroin, cocaine and other drugs under the supervision of nurses.
Hoping to reduce San Francisco’s high rate of fatal drug overdoses, the public health department co-sponsored a symposium on the only such facility in North America, a four-year-old Vancouver site where an estimated 700 users a day self-administer narcotics under the supervision of nurses.
“Having the conversation today will help us figure out whether this is a way to reduce the harms and improve the health of our community,” said Grant Colfax, director of HIV prevention for the San Francisco Department of Public Health.
Organizers of the daylong forum, which included a coalition of nonprofit health and social service groups, acknowledge that it could take years to get an injection facility up and running. Along with legal hurdles, such an effort would almost be sure to face political opposition.
Bertha Madras, deputy director of demand reduction for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, called San Francisco’s consideration of such a facility “disconcerting” and “poor public policy.”
“The underlying philosophy is, ‘We accept drug addiction, we accept the state of affairs as acceptable,’ ” Miss Madras said. “This is a form of giving up.”
Sixty-five similar facilities exist in 27 cities in eight countries, but no other U.S. cities have considered creating one, according to Hilary McQuie, Western director for the Harm Reduction Coalition, a nonprofit that promotes alternative drug treatment methods.
Advocates plan to work on building community support for a safe-injection center, including backing from Mayor Gavin Newsom and the Board of Supervisors.
Vancouver’s InSite program is located on the upper floor of a low-rise building in a downtown neighborhood where drug users shoot up in the open.
The site, exempt from federal drug laws so users can visit without fear of arrest, has 12 private booths where addicts inject drugs such as heroin and cocaine. They can use equipment and techniques provided by the staff, said Thomas Kerr, a University of British Columbia researcher who has extensively studied the program.
While 800 overdoses have occurred on the premises, Mr. Kerr said, none of them resulted in death because of the medical supervision provided at InSite. His research also has shown an increase in addicts seeking drug treatment and a decrease in abandoned syringes, needle sharing, drug-related crime and other problems since the clinic opened, he said.
The results indicate the idea is worth replicating, despite the criticism it may attract, Mr. Kerr said.
“I prefer the approach of the Vancouver Police Department, which was: ‘We don’t like the idea of this, but let’s look at the evidence and at the end of three years we will tell you either this is something we can support or it’s something we can’t support,’ ” he said.