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Rutgers professor comments on court ruling against supervised injection site

Jamey Lister, assistant professor at the School of Social Work, said the ruling ignored the medical argument to create this site by stating that the use of drugs on the premises is illegal, despite the fact that it would prevent medical harms like overdose and infectious disease transmission. – Photo by Rutgers.edu

On Jan.12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled 2-1 against a supervised injection site in Philadelphia, according to a press release. Jamey Lister, assistant professor at the School of Social Work, discussed the potential consequences of this decision in relation to the effects of these sites on users with drug addictions.

Injection facilities allow people to inject drugs using sterile syringes under the supervision of medical staff, he said. The staff does not help them to use drugs but may suggest safer methods of usage, monitor for signs of overdose or provide first aid if necessary.

“The primary goal of supervised injection facilities is to help people who inject drugs do so in a safe and hygienic space,” Lister said. “Creating these spaces has been (shown) to prevent overdose and the spread of infectious diseases.”

Research has shown that supervised drug sites are associated with reductions in behaviors that may lead to HIV transmission or fatal overdoses, though their impact on HIV or hepatitis C among the wider population of injection drug users is unclear, according to a 2018 overview from the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction.

Site users receive information about and referrals to treatment, which Lister said is significant, given the barriers to care services faced by people with opioid addictions. He said more deaths from overdosing will likely occur in the near future due to the ruling, which overrode a ruling last year in favor of Philadelphia nonprofit Safehouse’s proposed site, according to NPR.

In the previous ruling, the plaintiff U.S. Attorney William McSwain claimed that a supervised injection site would violate a 1986 federal law that bans anyone from establishing a place for drug use, sale or storage, according to NPR. U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh ruled that the law does not apply to Safehouse due to its goal of reducing drug use, as opposed to facilitating it.

“But, the (Third) Circuit went the other direction in January ... and relied on legislation from the 1980s that has been criticized for reinforcing stigma about addiction. That statute, in essence, says using drugs on premises is an illegal activity, essentially ignoring ways drug use can be conducted in a way that provides medical benefits,” Lister said. “To me, the court decided not to see Safehouse’s ultimate mission as medical, despite the fact that (its) facility would prevent medical harms like overdose and infectious disease transmission.”

The law was created during the “War on Drugs” era, which he said produced false narratives, discriminatory attitudes and harmful legislation. Lister said that although the opioid crisis debunked many myths about addiction, it is still highly common to believe that substance abuse results from questionable morality.

“It is imperative we push back on these narratives,” he said. “Instead, we should promote that every person is worthy of being treated with dignity and that, as the science shows, addiction is a chronic medical condition.”


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