Solomon Center Panel Examines Safe Opioid Consumption


In collaboration with the Global Health Justice Partnership (GHJP) at Yale Law School, the Yale Program in Addiction Medicine, and the Yale Health Law and Policy Society (YHeLPS), the Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy hosted a panel discussion on Feb. 23, “Addressing the Opioid Crisis — Safe Consumption and Federal Preemption.”

The panel was moderated by Leo Beletsky, Professor of Law and Health Sciences at the Northeastern University School of Law and Faculty Director of the Health in Justice Action Lab. Panelists included Sterling Johnson, activist and advocate for housing and harm reduction of the Philadelphia Overdose Prevention Network and a Ph.D. Candidate in Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University; Sam Rivera, Executive Director of New York Harm Reduction Educators and Washington Heights Corner Project (OnPoint NYC); and Kimberly Sue, Assistant Professor of Medicine (General Internal Medicine) at the Yale School of Medicine and Medical Director at the National Harm Reduction Coalition.

Sue began the panel by outlining the broad benefits of supervised consumption sites and framing them as a cost-effective philosophy, technique, and a public health intervention. As overdose deaths are climbing, she emphasized looking at this technique not as a panacea, but as part of the armament of tools we need to solve the crisis. She also presented such sites as a way to circumvent the carceral system.

Johnson detailed safe injection litigation in Philadelphia and the issues that arose in that legal battle, including first amendment challenges. Rivera chimed in to shed light on the safe injection sites that have been successfully operating in New York and credited cities like Philadelphia for their contribution to the movement for safe consumption. Rivera explained how 155 cases of overdose were reversed in two New York safe injection sites since their opening, a considerable number. He also pointed out that syringe disposal is now much easier, and park authorities report far less syringe litter since opening these sites.

The panelists also addressed the impact of racism on the criminalization of opioid users and underscored the need to consult with communities where safe consumption sites are being opened. The conversation then explored whether civil commitment was an effective solution for opioid users, or whether it was merely coercive. The discussion closed on whether safe consumption sites were preempted by federal law, describing the role of prosecutorial discretion and law nonenforcement as strategies that would allow safe injection sites to emerge as a robust tool for harm reduction.