Drug overdoses killed 719 Allegheny County people in 2021. The deaths of these sons, daughters, wives, husbands and siblings accounted for 25% of all deaths under the jurisdiction of the county medical examiner’s office, which tracks the deaths.
In recent years, the mountain of grief caused by overdose deaths has grown. In 2020, overdose deaths numbered 689. In 2019, the number was 564.
One method of attempting to reduce the overdose carnage took a body blow this week when the Pennsylvania State Senate voted to pass a bill criminalizing the operation of safe injections sites — places where people can use illicit drugs under the supervision of medical professionals who can administer care in case someone overdoses.
Senate Bill 165 passed by a tally of 41-9. The only Allegheny County senator voting against the measure, Lindsey M. Williams, noted that safe injections sites have proven to be an effective tool in battling the opioid epidemic.
Williams, a Democrat, represents the 38th District, which covers communities in the Allegheny River Valley, the North Hills suburbs and parts of the city of Pittsburgh, including Upper Lawrenceville, Highland Park and Stanton Heights.
In more than three decades of use in the U.S. and around the world, safe injection centers have proven to be an effective tool, Williams said. They reduce the number of fatal overdoses and improve participation in drug treatment programs. Use of the centers also reduces public drug use and improper syringe disposal, she said.
“Addiction does not have a one-size-fits-all solution,” Williams said. “And treatment is constantly evolving. In fact, it wasn’t long ago that Narcan, needle exchanges and fentanyl test strips were illegal or barely used because people thought they were dangerous.”
But after studies revealed those tools were useful, she said, “We know better. And these measures have saved so many lives.”
Supporters of the bill say the centers enable addiction and that states and communities should focus on making certain those struggling with addiction receive treatment. The bill now goes to the Pennsylvania State House.
Williams admits safe injection sites are not for all communities. “But with more than a dozen Pennsylvanians dying every day from drug overdoses,” she said, “the state should not ban effective solutions before community leaders have had a chance to consider them.
The PUP is the publication of the striking workers at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.