Justice

These Images Reveal the Need for Harm Reduction Policies

Blood and crumbs of heroin leftover on a baby changing station at a public restroom in Ohio — it's not the kind of thing any parent (or user of a bathroom) hopes to encounter at their local gas station.

opioid

But that's exactly what officers at the Kent Police Department discovered after arresting a man suspected of shooting up in a bathroom stall last month. In a Facebook post about the incident, the department cautioned that "drugs can be absorbed through the skin, and easily be fatal." 

"Gas stations and other public restrooms are very common locations for drug transactions, and for administering drugs," the post continued. "Please be very mindful of this for your safety and your kids."

Public bathrooms have become "ground zero in the opioid epidemic," NPR's Boston affiliate WBUR recently reported. Especially for homeless users, they are a widely accessible options for users to administer illicit substances in private. In some cases, though, that privacy means having an overdose go unnoticed.

heroin needle

What's to be done? For business owners, having people shoot up in their bathroom stalls is a common complaint. Some have installed low, bluish lighting in their restrooms in an effort to prevent addicts from identifying the veins in their arm, or the injection site. For law enforcement, the trend represents a public health and safety concern that they're increasingly called to handle.

But for some addicts, public bathrooms are sanctuaries, where the risks of judgment or prosecution are mitigated.

toilet

Drug use in public bathrooms is nothing new. But with record-high rates of opioid abuse in the U.S. has come increased attention to addiction in public spaces. In 2016, researchers at New York University found that 60 percent of "active injectors" — people who shoot up intravenously in the city — were administered drugs in public locations such as bathrooms.

"While there are a growing number of syringe exchange programs across the U.S. that provide people who inject drugs with sterile injecting equipment, they are not authorized to offer a safe and sanitary space for injection," Dr. Brett Wolfson-Stofko, the lead author of the study, said in a press release. "As a result, many tend to inject in public bathrooms."

heroin-addict

Wolfson-Stofko and other drug reform advocates have been calling for harm reduction polices that remain controversial in the U.S.: safe injection sites where addicts are able to administer drugs in a safe environment, supervised by medical professionals. Safe injection sites have been successful in select countries that have allowed them to operate, reducing numbers of fatal overdoses and the spread of diseases associated with contaminated intravenous injections.

"People are going to be injecting drugs whether we want them to or not. That is the reality," Wolfson-Stofko told ATTN:. "By providing people with a place to inject drugs we are able to keep them alive and healthy which will ultimately reduce the financial toll that substance misuse has on society by reducing emergency responses to overdose, by reducing soft-tissue infections as well as by reducing the amount of people who need treatment for HIV and hepatitis C."

"It is important to note that supervised injection facilities connect people to treatment as well as mental health and primary care which most people agree is the goal," he added. "Providing people with a place to inject drugs will not only save taxpayer’s money, it saves families a lot of heartache and suffering along the way."