Are Safe Injection Sites Really the Answer?

Denver, Colorado
Denver, Colorado

Turn on the news any day of the week and you’ll witness all manner of controversy and “juicy drama.” Let’s face it, drama and controversy sell airtime, regular events and good news do not. So it was really no surprise to me when I turned to U.S. News and saw a special on how Denver, Colorado is trying to authorize a “safe injection site” for IV drug users.

Not only are safe injection sites controversial and simply unworkable, but to hear that a major U.S. city was proposing one was juicy drama and controversial overall. Typical fodder for the news cannons.

But this is a story that we actually do need to hear, for once, because we can’t allow safe injection sites to become “a thing” in the U.S. Safe injection sites don’t help us overcome our nation’s drug problem. Such sites in fact only serve to further entrench addicts in their dependencies on IV drugs.

What Is Safe Injection?

Injection site

First off, let’s define what a safe injection site is. A safe injection site is a physical location, a monitored, medically staffed clinic where IV drug users can go to shoot up drugs in a supervised, “safe” setting. Such users will be given a roof over their heads and medical monitoring, so their risks of overdosing and dying are significantly reduced.

The theory behind a safe injection site is actually one of defeat and admittance that we can’t help everyone get off drugs. The basic concept behind safe injection is that “Some addicts are going to use drugs no matter what. No matter how much we try to get them off of drugs, they will keep using. So we might as well make that usage as safe and risk-free for them as possible.”

That is a pretty unpleasant response to the drug problem, and it has rather negative implications. When we make it “okay” for people to use drugs, people will continue to use them, turning their backs on societal pressure to get clean and make a positive change for the better in their lives. If we become a society that supports drug use by allowing safe injection sites, we become a nation that allows drug experimentation, not one which inhibits it.

The Denver Plan

In 2017, a little over one thousand people died in Colorado from drug overdoses, according to U.S. News. Many of those deaths occurred in Denver and the surrounding areas. So we can see why the city is frustrated with its own drug addiction micro-epidemic. But that doesn’t mean we should implement safe injection sites, not when there is still no evidence that supports that such sites reduce overdose deaths or that they promote “safe drug injection conditions.”

In 2018, Denver residents, Denver City Council, and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock supported a plan that would allow the city to host supervised drug use sites. The plan was approved under the notion that it would help the city to reduce and prevent rampant overdose deaths.

“…there is no evidence that such sites actually reduce the number of drug-related deaths or make it more likely that users will seek help for their addiction or mental health issues…”

But the United States Attorney’s Office of the District of Colorado is not having it. According to their official document on the matter, “Foremost, the operation of such sites is illegal under federal law. Second, there is no evidence that such sites actually reduce the number of drug-related deaths or make it more likely that users will seek help for their addiction or mental health issues. Third, these facilities actually increase public safety risks.”

Denver will not be allowed to host safe injection sites, because not only are such sites illegal, but they are simply wrong.

Safe Injection—a Losing Bet

Addict holding syringe at home.

Here are some of the alleged promises and “benefits” to safe injection sites and why they don’t work:

  • Safe injection promotes the idea that such sites offer a “risk-free drug injection environment.” But who’s to say that an addict who comes into the facility to shoot up on Tuesday won’t also shoot up at his home on Wednesday? These facilities are totally voluntary, with no way of predicting if addicts will use them all the time, just some of the time, or not at all.
  • The same logical fallacy applies to the safe injection “promise” that such sites will reduce overdose deaths. Again, addicts who use drugs at safe injection sites are just as likely to overdose the next day in their homes. There is no such thing as “safe” drug use, as safe injection sites tend to promote.
  • Safe injection sites support the notion that we are never going to help everyone get off of drugs, so we might as well make drug use safe for anyone who wants to take part in it. But where did the notion come from that, “You can’t help everyone”? An addict who does not want help is simply an addict who has not yet experienced a true rock-bottom moment, a true moment of realizing that they must make a change in their life, or they will die. Giving such addicts safe injection sites assures that they will never have that vital realization. It’s more of an admission of failure than a solution.
  • Safe injection sites support the notion that they are reducing (or at least not increasing) drug crime in the areas in which they operate. But this is ridiculous. Just the possession of drugs is a crime. And if addicts are flocking to safe injection sites to shoot up, it follows logically that dealers will also set up shop in areas where there are safe injection sites, as they know that there are several addicts looking to buy in those areas.

Every time proponents of safe injection come up with a reason to promote such sites, that reason is knocked down by logic, evidence, and the simple fact that drug use should not be encouraged or enabled, as nothing good will come from walking down that path.

Help Addicts Get Clean, Don’t Enable Them

The federal government has made its stance on safe injection sites very clear. While Denver seems to have joined the ranks of other cities which have asked for safe injection sites—such as San Francisco, Philadelphia, Seattle, and New York City, this does not change the fact that drug dealing and use is highly illegal, and will remain so for obvious reasons.

We need to focus on helping addicts get better, not on enabling their drug use. Someone who is struggling with a drug problem or a drinking problem is in no fair state by any means. When people are afflicted with addiction, it is our job to do our best to try and help them, and to keep trying until they say yes. We can never give up on drug addicts, and what is a safe injection site but the ultimate “give-up”? When we let addicts use drugs and make it easier for them to do so, we are giving up on them. We are essentially signing their death note on a life-long sentence of IV drug use.


Reviewed and Edited by Claire Pinelli, CAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.