OP-ED: Supervised injection sites are enabling, but necessary

Kevin Riordan
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
From left, clockwise, Catalyst Twomey, Jamaal Henderson, Noble Henderson and Billy Boyer lay down roses, which represent people in Philadelphia who died of drug overdose in 2018, outside the Federal Courthouse in Center City, Philadelphia on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. Protesters gathered outside the courthouse while the backers of Safehouse, the nonprofit aiming to open a first-of-its-kind supervised injection site in Philadelphia, were in court for a hearing before a judge, who will decide whether what they propose is illegal. (Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

People living in addiction are experts at enabling other people to enable them. Their expertise is part of a survival strategy for the addicted individual and the addiction itself. The fact that the person in addiction desperately needs to believe the lies they tell themselves is why they can lie so well to others.

I say this as a person who did all of the above, and worse, while in alcoholism and addiction. But since Feb. 24, 2007, I have been living in abstinence-based recovery. I’m grateful to be part of a vibrant grassroots community of people for whom helping sustain the sobriety of others is a way to stay sober ourselves.

When I first heard about the notion of a supervised injection site as a way to fight Philly’s opioid epidemic, the approach struck me as high-minded, but hopelessly naive. Of course clients would agree to accept a pamphlet, sign a piece of paper, endure a spiel or say whatever the compassionate folks running the place need to hear. They’d do it simply to have the drug enslaving them tested for contaminants before using it in a setting less risky than the street.

I still believe that a supervised injection facility will enable people to continue living in addiction. After all, keeping people alive will be a core mission. But as the suffering continues and the bodies pile up I’ve come to accept that this approach can not only reduce harm, but save lives. People who die in addiction will never live in recovery.

The existence of a supervised injection site alone is not going to persuade anyone that living in addiction is a desirable option. Clients won’t be given free drugs but rather, the means to safely use the drugs they bring with them. Regular contact with medical and treatment professionals will enable clients to take action when an impulse to get help arises. As anyone living in addiction can tell you, the impulse to stop and the willingness to act upon it are fleeting, but frequent. A trusting relationship with a treatment professional can enable someone to seize such a moment.

For me, abstinence-based recovery has been the most personally liberating option. But given the neurological rewiring caused by opioid addiction, the growing availability of medication-assisted treatment to ease the transition off street drugs and sustain recovery, especially in its fragile early stages, is a welcome new path out of the hell that is addiction. A supervised injection site connecting clients to detox and rehab is a way to get the process started.

Nearly 13 years ago, I was spared not due to any remaining goodness of my own but because people who loved me — the people I had for so long enabled to be my enablers — didn’t give up on me. They helped me survive long enough to find recovery. Other people in addiction now are as sick as I was. And I won’t give up on them.

— Kevin Riordan is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.