Will Minnesota have safe injection spaces?

Minnesota is a step closer to allowing designated spaces where people can use drugs in a controlled environment, but questions remain about whether that will happen.

Rhode Island is the only other state that has language in state statutes allowing overdose prevention centers, which are also known as safe injection sites or harm reduction centers. The sites have also popped up in a few other big cities, including New York City, which opened the first publicly recognized safe injection site in 2021.

Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, said $14 million dollars will go toward harm reduction organizations, which help people who have a substance use disorder, in Minnesota. That one-time funding will be dispersed until 2029. 

Jack Martin, the executive director of Southside Harm Reduction Services, provides supplies for safe injections to community members who use drugs. The supplies include things like sterile syringes and fentanyl testing strips. He’s glad to see Minnesota putting money toward harm reduction services and supplies.

"It does signal that Minnesota is willing to make big strides and do what is necessary to address some of these horrible disparities and just unnecessary overdose deaths across all communities that we're facing," Martin said.

His organization is a big supporter of overdose prevention centers, where people can use drugs with trained medical personnel around, but he questions whether the new state law will allow for that.

"We don't know if this will open up any safe injection sites or overdose prevention centers in the state of Minnesota. But we do recognize that they are needed and that they would have a real impact," Martin said. "It would offer dignity and offer a response to the overdose crisis that is one of compassion."

So what does the new law say? It says: "the commissioner of human services must establish start-up and capacity-building grants for current or prospective harm reduction organizations." The law said the grants must be used to establish "safe recovery sites" that offer services and supplies, including safe injection spaces, sterile needle exchange, opiate antagonist rescue kits; fentanyl and other drug testing, etc. 

"You’re creating a pathway for the state to officially sanction the use of overdose prevention centers," Hoffman told FOX 9. 

Hoffman said state officials can now determine best practices.

FOX asked the Minnesota Department of Human Services whether funding will specifically be used for safe injection spaces. A spokesperson said in a statement: 

"As DHS prepares to implement these budget and policy changes – including funding for safe recovery sites – we will be engaging partners and communities about how to do so most effectively and in ways that help expand the options for people facing addiction to access supports needed for their journey toward recovery. Those community engagement efforts will inform how funding for safe recovery sites is deployed. We view safe recovery sites as an important new tool for communities to help reduce the harm and public health impact of addiction, and to engage people in supports and recovery options that they otherwise might never receive."

Opponents argue that these sites encourage drugs, but FOX 9 had a public health expert weigh in. Bobbi Gass, a community health specialist with Hennepin County, said research shows the sites do not encourage drug use. 

"If people have a place to use where other people – especially people trained in harm reduction, in Narcan – around them, they're not going to die," Gass said. 

Federal harm reduction advocates said another challenge to getting safe injection sites approved as federal law called the Controlled Substances Act, which is colloquially known as the "Crack House Statute." It is intended to hold liable landlords who allow a house to be used for drug use.

Drug overdose deaths have increased steadily among Hennepin County residents since 2018. In 2021, 396 residents died from drug overdoses. Of that number, 340 residents died from an opioid overdose.

Gass said safe injection sites save lives because people can receive proper medical care. They also became an entry point into health care.

"It is often staffed by harm reductionists, also nurses. So people can come in, they can safely use their drugs under the careful, eye of a nurse. And so if anything goes wrong, the nurse can be there to intervene," Gass explained.

Audua Pugh, who runs the north Minneapolis organization Off the Blue Couch, isn’t shy about sharing her journey with drug use. She’s been clean for 18 years and uses her platform story to help others through the healing and recovery process.

"I feel like people that are not ready to stop using drugs are going to use drugs anyway. The reason that I know is because I'm a recovering drug user," Pugh said.

She approached Minneapolis officials a few years ago about creating safe injection sites.

"People should be open minded. Because if you've never had a drug addiction, you will never understand how people feel," she explained.