Using drugs in un/safe spaces: Impact of perceived illegality on an underground supervised injecting facility in the United States

Int J Drug Policy. 2018 Mar:53:37-44. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2017.12.005. Epub 2017 Dec 23.


Background: Supervised injection facilities (SIFs) are spaces where people can consume pre-obtained drugs in hygienic circumstances with trained staff in attendance to provide emergency response in the event of an overdose or other medical emergency, and to provide counselling and referral to other social and health services. Over 100 facilities with formal legal sanction exist in ten countries, and extensive research has shown they reduce overdose deaths, increase drug treatment uptake, and reduce social nuisance. No facility with formal legal sanction currently exists in the United States, however one community-based organization has successfully operated an 'underground' facility since September 2014.

Methods: Twenty three qualitative interviews were conducted with people who used the underground facility, staff, and volunteers to examine the impact of the facility on peoples' lives, including the impact of lack of formal legal sanction on service provision.

Results: Participants reported that having a safe space to inject drugs had led to less injections in public spaces, greater ability to practice hygienic injecting practices, and greater protection from fatal overdose. Constructive aspects of being 'underground' included the ability to shape rules and procedures around user need rather than to meet political concerns, and the rapid deployment of the project, based on immediate need. Limitations associated with being underground included restrictions in the size and diversity of the population served by the site, and reduced ability to closely link the service to drug treatment and other health and social services.

Conclusion: Unsanctioned supervised injection facilities can provide a rapid and user-driven response to urgent public health needs. This work draws attention to the need to ensure such services remain focused on user-defined need rather than external political concerns in jurisdictions where supervised injection facilities acquire local legal sanction.

Keywords: Harm reduction; Law; Overdose; People who inject drugs; Supervised injection facilities.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Drug Overdose / prevention & control
  • Female
  • Harm Reduction
  • Humans
  • Illicit Drugs / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Male
  • Needle-Exchange Programs / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Public Health
  • Social Stigma
  • Substance Abuse, Intravenous
  • Substance-Related Disorders / psychology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires


  • Illicit Drugs