In a tall tent at Lafayette Square in downtown Buffalo, passersby were invited Wednesday to see what a "safe injection facility" would look like.
Called "Safe Shape," the exhibit was described as a "mock drug consumption room." The idea behind such a room would be to provide a safe place for people to use IV drugs such as heroin under medical supervision.
To be clear, no drugs were made available at Wednesday's exhibit and would not ever be provided at such a facility. The exhibit, sponsored by VOCAL-NY and the Drug Policy Alliance, is traveling around New York State. It is scheduled to go on display in Rochester Thursday and Syracuse Friday.
Advocates for such sites say they would provide clean syringes and other "works" to addict, to help prevent the transmission of blood-borne diseases including HIV and Hepatitis C. They would also have medical personnel on site who could intervene in the case of an overdose or other medical complication.
Organizers know the sites are controversial. "We recognize that many stakeholders have valid concerns about the logistics of safer consumption spaces; this will be a space where people who have questions and concerns can bring them. We view this tour as an opportunity to come together and have an informed discussion about innovative solutions to the opioid epidemic rooted in compassion and public health," they wrote in a press statement."
There are no legal safe injection facilities in the U.S. Earlier this year, Seattle passed legislation paving the way to open the nation's first safe injection sites. New York City and Ithaca have raised the possibility of opening such sites. Across the border, Toronto approved three safe injection sites.
Last year in Erie County, there were 288 confirmed opioid overdose deaths with another 14 suspected cases. As of May 1 of this year, there have been 24 confirmed opioid overdose deaths and another 114 suspected overdose deaths for which toxicology reports are pending.
On Good Friday at the Broadway Market, three women whose lives have been touched by the opioid epidemic held a rally to demand the county open safe injection sites.
Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein said about the protest that she understands the frustration over the overdose deaths but said it's unlikely the county would open a safe injection site. She said safe injection sites would be prohibitively expensive to operate and there's also no legal framework for them, which means they'd likely be shut down. The county is focusing on long-term addiction treatment and offering free training in the use of opioid antidotes.