Minnesota legislature passes law opening door to creation of safe injection spaces

Minnesota looks to safe injection spaces to combat rising overdoses

Minnesota looks to safe injection spaces to combat rising overdoses

The State of Minnesota is working to develop safe recovery sites as the opioid epidemic continues. According to the most recent data from the Minnesota Department of Health, there was a 43% increase in opioid overdose deaths from 2020 to 2021.

“Minnesota has a really worryingly increasing, dramatically increasing, rate of overdose deaths,” said Eric Grumdahl, the assistant commissioner for Behavioral Health, Housing, and Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services for the Minnesota Department of Human Services. “With the opioids and drugs that exist on our streets today, that threat is more acute than it has ever been and so this is really about us having solutions and tools in our toolkit that can respond to those needs in a really significant way.”

The Human Services Omnibus Bill passed this year by the DFL-controlled Minnesota Legislature includes about $18 million dollars for the commissioner of Human Services to create grants for harm reduction organizations to establish safe recovery sites.

More than $14.5 million is one-time funding appropriated for fiscal year 2024 and available until 2029. Another $3 million will be appropriated annually starting in 2025.

“These sites really often end up operating like hubs that draw people in that otherwise might not be getting any care at all,” said Grumdahl.

The sites could include a variety of approaches, including sterile needle exchanges, street outreach and drug testing, according to the legislation. It could also include safe injection spaces.

Typically at a safe injection space, an individual consumes drugs while being monitored by a medical professional.

“We need an option that doesn’t necessarily require that somebody is ready to stop using on the day that they enter support,” said Grumdahl.  “We’re really providing support and engagement and trust-building and those other life-saving forms of care that are able to make sure that we’re able to keep somebody alive long enough to recover.”

New York City opened the first government-approved safe injection site in the U.S. two years ago. Also in 2021, Rhode Island became the first state to authorize safe injection sites. Minnesota is now only the second state to do so.

Opponents in other cities have argued the sites could promote drug use and have questioned whether it’s legal under federal law.

According to the American Medical Association in 2020, there were more than 120 supervised consumption sites globally, and “…at facilities operating worldwide, not a single overdose death has been reported because staff can immediately respond…”

“It’s been used in other parts of the world to some great effect,” said Hennepin Healthcare Director of Addiction Medicine Dr. Gavin Bart, who has toured facilities in Zurich and Vancouver. “No one should think of these like bars. This is not going to a bar and having recreation and listening to music and entertainment with your friends. This is really much more of a health facility, social service.”

He added, “It can be a stepping stone into social services, treatment services.”

Dr. Bart said it can also be an opportunity for those struggling with substance use disorder to learn how to safely inject drugs, which can help prevent infections and the formation of abscesses.

“I think one drawback is the sort of moral indignation reaction of ‘You’re going to do what?’ or ‘You’re going to allow people to do what?’ but I think when you’re faced with continuing increases in drug overdoses we need to try more public health approaches,” said Dr. Bart.

Rainbow Health Community Health Supervisor JT Stewart spends most days at All God’s Children in Minneapolis talking with those struggling with addiction. The organization’s MAINLINE program provides sterile supplies as well as testing.

“It’s important because we want to do our best job of slowing the rate or bringing the rate down of contracting HIV or Hepatitis C,” said Stewart. “You just provide them all of the things they can do to do it safe and then also they come in and are talking to us about being in limbo about going to get treatment. We refer people to go get treatment as well.”

They’ve given out close to 70,000 syringes so far this year and about 450 people have received their services, according to Stewart. Last year, the MAINLINE program engaged with about 1,300 individuals and handed out 210,000 syringes.

Stewart welcomes the idea of safe injection sites but believes community engagement will be an important next step.

“The fact that they are doing it here is super, super exciting because you will eliminate so much of that stigma that comes with injecting drugs while also creating a safe haven for those individuals so they can get connected to more resources,” said Stewart.

The Department of Human Services is still working to determine whether the state will target locations for a safe recovery site, or if communities will apply.

“The exact path for the money getting out the door is still ahead of us,” said Grumdahl, who emphasized there will be an extensive community engagement process before any site is established. “What we know is this is something that cuts across the entire state. Now how you address that in different communities will look different but being able to have tools that work statewide that’s really what we’re excited about.”

We reached out to Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey about whether the city would support a site. His office responded in a statement:

“As with other policies, the mayor will make future decisions based on what the data shows. We will be looking to state and federal partners in addition to public health experts for recommendations and guidance moving forward to confront the opioid crisis together.”

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS reached out to the Minnesota House and Senate Republican caucuses but both declined to comment on this story.