Last week I spent a beautiful few days in my hometown of Santa Cruz. What a treat it was to leave snowy New York for sunny California. I was able to walk the cliffs, surf, hang out with high school friends and catch up on the latest news.
One issue that people wanted to discuss and vent to me about was all of the "junkies" leaving their dirty syringes on Santa Cruz beaches. My friends know that I work at the Drug Policy Alliance and they support much of our agenda -- like legalizing marijuana and offering treatment instead of prison for people who struggle with drugs -- but they were pissed and frustrated about the growing heroin problem and wanted to know what I think Santa Cruz should do.
I wasn't totally surprised to hear this topic come up. Thanks to Facebook I have had a window into the anger and hostility toward people in Santa Cruz who inject drugs. I've seen friends of mine slamming city officials for "turning a blind eye" to the syringes in the park and on the beaches and calling for an end to syringe exchange programs because they "enable" and "encourage" drug use. I was disturbed to hear how my friends were talking about people who use drugs. Many people were calling people who use drugs "zombies" and "junkies" and their hostility was palpable.
I have spent the last 15 years working to end our nation's disastrous war on drugs -- so it was sad for me to see that the drug problem in Santa Cruz has reached a point where good people are so upset that they were pushing for backward policies that would not help people struggling with addiction or the Santa Cruz community as a whole.
So what should Santa Cruz officials and concerned citizens do? They need to follow the example of Vancouver and dozens other cities around the world by establishing a Supervised injection facility (SIF).
Supervised injection facilities are designed to reduce the health and societal problems associated with injection drug use -- by providing legally sanctioned facilities where people who use intravenous drugs can inject drugs under medical supervision. There is overwhelming evidence that SIFs are effective in reducing new HIV infections, overdose deaths and public health threats like discarded syringes -- and that they do not increase drug use or criminal activity.
There are currently 92 such facilities operating in 62 cities around the world -- but none in the U.S. It's time already.
Santa Cruz elected officials should jump on this issue. They should travel to Vancouver and see first-hand the benefits of their SIF. They should invite the Mayor of Vancouver, police officials and drug policy experts to hold forums in Santa Cruz to get the community on board. This is a commonsense solution that will reduce disease and death for people who use drugs -- and will also reduce the public drug use and discarded syringes that are so upsetting to many in the community.
I totally understand the frustration and anger in Santa Cruz. Let's channel that energy and come up with a solution that will benefit Santa Cruz and be an example to other cities in the United States.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance and a graduate of Santa Cruz High School and U.C. Santa Cruz.
This piece first appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel