Johns Hopkins study: safe drug spaces could drive down drug use

Posted at 6:24 PM, Feb 24, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-24 18:29:12-05

An estimated 19,000 people in Baltimore are injecting drugs and overdose deaths continue to skyrocket all over the metro area, but there is one report from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that says it could drastically reduce those numbers, by allowing people to shoot up.

They would be called safe consumption spaces and allow people to use their drugs in a safe, clean and protective environment.

It is admittedly a controversial finding, but one a Johns Hopkins professor thinks could work here in Baltimore, facilities one on each side of the city, where drugs can be consumed under medical and counselor supervision.

The goal would be not only reduce overdose deaths and diseases like HIV, but to provide addiction services to those that need it most.

"We meet people where they are and wherever they are in their drug use. We know that ideally, people being clean is the goal, but it takes a really long time to get there," said professor Susan Sherman.

Sherman believes safe consumption spaces could be a tool along with naloxone and treatment centers.

The professor authored the report exploring safe spaces as a strategy for Baltimore City.

Sixty-six cities in 11 countries around the world employ this technique.

The closest is Vancouver where near its facility, the city saw a 35 percent reduction in overdose deaths and more than half of the drug users who used a safe space started addiction treatment.

"Safe consumption spaces are one of those tools that have had demonstrative effectiveness in terms of people going into drug treatment, reducing the burden of HIV, reducing risk behaviors, reducing overdose, saving lives. So, it is one part of a controversial approach to treating drug use," Sherman said.

But the idea, as you would imagine is drawing some vocal critics.

"I call it an intellectual pipe dream. On paper, boy it certainly makes sense, we keep them alive, we give them a clean needle, doesn't work!"

Once Baltimore County's drug czar and former heroin addict himself Mike Gimble says these safe consumption spaces are just another idea that evades the real solution.

He says the state needs to finally pony up for long term care and treatment facilities and anything else will simply fall short.

"It can be done. They just don't want to do it. They want these fancy, sexy programs that get them on the 6 o'clock news but they don’t help. They don't make a difference. And until we have long term treatment, any one of these goofy intellectual ideas are not gonna work because they don't understand the addict," Gimble said.

But Professor Sherman says open your eyes.

According to the Baltimore Health Department, 2015 in Baltimore saw just under 400 overdose deaths, in just the first 9 months of 2016 that number jumped to nearly 500.

Sherman says it is time to try something, especially a technique backed by data.

"There are actually evidence based things such as consumption spaces that we know have a positive effect, I don't know why we wouldn’t use every possible measure, every possible intervention to help people during and hopefully get out of their addiction,” Sherman said.

There are legal barriers to an idea like this.

If instituted, Baltimore would be the first city in the US to have these spaces although city's like Seattle and San Francisco are closer to implementing the idea.

Baltimore has a history of leading the nation in these kinds of ideas, in 1994, charm city became the first city in the country to have a clean needle exchange program to help combat HIV and AIDS."

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