Opinion

How we to move toward acceptance on safe injection sites

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It is hard to overcome an emotional response in politics.

It’s part of the reason why President Donald Trump is able to maintain the support of his hardcore supporters. He connects with them emotionally – with anger, fear and, often, hatred.

No amount of logic can break that emotional connection. There’s no arguing the facts about immigration, trade wars or corruption.

But emotional reactions in politics aren’t just the dominion of demagogues such as Trump. There are issues that tend to provoke an emotional response, too.

It’s also true of the question of safe injection sites for people who use illegal drugs, such as heroin.

The issue came up a bunch during the campaign last season, and most of the political class either said “no” or tried to give a less than specific answer to the question. It’s easy to understand why.

The idea of facilitating an illegal, deadly act is counter-intuitive. It seems perverse. And kinda icky. How can we fight drug use and allow it at the same time?

If any candidate running last year had ask me, I would have told them to say “no” to safe injection sites and to pivot toward other proven ways to improve the state’s response to the opioid crisis. That was the smart play.

And I would have offered that advice even though – deep down – I knew that the logic behind safe injection sites makes sense. It was too much of a risk politically. In an era of bad faith in campaigning, the position is too easy to caricature.

It’s an idea that immediately conjures dark images of opioid dens and crack houses. Trying to convince a skeptical public of the idea was no task for a heated political campaign with so much at stake, including health care for more than 70,000 people or a renewed effort to fight catastrophic climate change.

There are brave thought leaders who have been making the case publicly for years, but they haven’t gained much traffic. There are good hearted folks who have tried different means to put this policy in place, including creating a church.

But for me, it was Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s journey from opposition to support that convinced me that we can’t let politics – and emotion – get in the way of doing the right thing.

Walsh has been fighting his own demons for years. He’s 20 years sober and a recovering alcoholic. He credits Alcoholics Anonymous for helping him find his way.

It was something someone said during an AA meeting that helped Walsh turn the corner. “Whatever the pathway into recovery is, we should be accepting of it,” Walsh recalled.

Safe injection sites, often referred to as part of “harm reduction” efforts, have the potential to save lives. They also bring people fighting addiction into contact with medical professionals and others who might be able to help them break free from their disease.

Gov. Janet Mills has made more progress in less than three months in putting science-based techniques to find opioids in place than the last governor did in eight years of backsliding.

She’s appointed Gordon Smith, the former executive vice president of the Maine Medical Association, to lead the effort. She has eliminated arbitrary limits on medication-assisted treatments, expanded the availability of naloxone, which can reverse the effects of overdose, and expanded Medicaid, which increases access to treatment.

The idea of helping people to inject poison triggers a lot of raw emotions, and there’s a real question about how the federal government would respond to state or local actions like these.
I hope policymakers of both parties can move beyond an initial emotional response and fear of the politics behind this idea. The evidence that safe injection sites can make a difference is real, especially in saving lives.

And the mayor of Boston has shown that it’s never too late to change your mind or do the right thing.

David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s 2014 campaign for governor.

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