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Kentucky Kernel

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It’s time Kentucky’s General Assembly considers safe injection sites

Akhila Nadimpalli
Illustration by Akhila Nadimpalli

At all times, there is a Narcan anti-overdose package on my person — a habit formed by an abundance of caution and genuine fear that it might one day become necessary to use.

Kentucky’s drug crisis is reaching an inflection point; fifteen weeks ahead of the Kentucky General Assembly’s next convention, it’s time we consider every possible tool in our arsenal to combat rising overdoses and addiction rates.

Last year, 2,135 Kentukians died of overdose, a slight decrease from the year prior yet a dramatic increase still from only a decade ago. It’s time the legislature seriously consider investing in a state-wide safe injection site program.

The concept is simple, the sites would be available for users to administer illicit drugs with impunity, a doctor present in the event of emergency, free drug testing and resources for recovery readily available.

It seems controversial, but it works.

Where these facilities are built, overdose deaths are dramatically cut, as is the spread of infectious disease like HIV. One study from the Association for the American Family Physician found “an abrupt, persistent decrease in crime after the opening of a supervised injection site” in Vancouver. Another study argued that the city of New York could save $7.8 million by building a single safe injection site in a heavy use area by cutting costs from ambulance and police visits, hospital stays and arrests.

New York’s pilot program has been a massive success in its first two years and now several other states and cities are considering adopting similar policies. It’s simple, it’s effective and it would be the right move for Kentucky. In fact, it seems like something that is right up the legislature’s alley.

Contrary to what might be the obvious conclusion, the legislative majority in Kentucky is not altogether opposed to a moderately progressive approach to drug policy. I don’t see the KYGOP calling to prosecute the pharmaceutical companies responsible for this crisis, but they do seem to be relatively willing to see the light on other sides of the issue.

Last year’s legislative session had some highlights. The bipartisan House Bill 248 expands access to housing and treatment for those in recovery and House Bill 148 removes barriers between insurance and rehabilitation for those in recovery.

Earlier this year, Rep. Andy Barr and Sen. Mitch McConnell worked together to pass the CAREER Act, which provides funding to rehabilitation centers in Kentucky, allowing them to expand into previously underserviced territory like Pikeville.

It also goes without saying that the 2023 session brought Kentucky medical marijuana.

Kentucky’s Republicans are, to their credit, capable of crafting legitimately good drug policy. Albeit largely half measures that don’t cut at the root of the problem, they are policies that have a net positive impact for Kentucky. And safe injection sites fit that same bill.They’re no third rail for the drug crisis, but they will seriously reduce harm and should be considered.

But when you ask them to, Republicans across the country shrug their shoulders. Despite a seeming willingness to take a more levelheaded approach to the drug crisis, there is an unspoken political myopia to this proposal.

In Kentucky, it doesn’t seem like it’s been considered, but in other parts of the country where safe injection sites have been added to the docket, the response from the right is nothing short of dramatic. One Colorado Republican called them “horrendous” on the grounds they establish special privileges for users.

That notion is shortsighted — the sites aren’t a special privilege, they’re a tool for the state to promote rehabilitation and prevent needless deaths. And more, an idea I’d think Republicans would be sympathetic to, they take users off public streets and put them in places where passers-by are not subjected to open drug use.

Some Democrats are opposed too, like Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, who joined with Republicans to support a bill banning the sites statewide. They cited a misguided belief that the sites have no positive impact on the communities they are in, despite a wealth of information suggesting otherwise.

Republicans in New York are actively trying to defund the safe injection site program already in place. Congresswoman Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican from New York’s 11th district said they “encourage drug use and deteriorate our quality of life.” Once again, the evidence points elsewhere.

Admittedly, I understand the political instinct from the right to oppose these programs. If you don’t think about it too hard, it almost does feel like users are given special treatment and are being encouraged to use without fear of retribution.

Unlike Kentucky’s Recovery Housing Network, or the CAREER Act, these programs work for addicts whether they are getting clean or not.

Morsoe, safe injection sites operate as a point of first contact for social workers and medical professionals to find addicts in a safe space and administer the help they need. It’s certainly a more controversial idea, but it’s rooted in compassion and it works.

I’ll keep carrying my Narcan because being a helping hand doesn’t come with qualifiers, but I hope it’ll become obsolete before I ever have to administer it. Republicans in Frankfort, who control just about everything these days, have the opportunity to do some real good. I urge them to take it.

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