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Supervision and Crime Rates

How does the establishment of supervised injection sites affect crime rates? Alice Zhang mines the data.


As the opioid epidemic reached its peak in the United States, questions about the best response were raised. Debates soon turned to supervised injection sites (SIS). Already operating in Canada, parts of Europe, and Australia, there exists a large literature base concerning the safety and efficacy of these facilities. Several major cities in the United States are considering opening facilities in order to better address the drug problem. However, questions regarding the effect on drug use patterns, relapse rates, and crime rates have risen.

How does the establishment of supervised injection sites affect crime rates? In this paper, I explore the effect of Insite, the first SIS built in North America, on crime rates in Vancouver, Canada. The facility provides medical supervision for drug users when injecting pre obtained drugs. Additionally, they supply sterile equipment, intervention if an overdose occurs, as well as addiction counseling and other social services. I will look at crime rates, especially those related with heroin or cocaine, in the city from before the facility was built and compare the data to after the facility opened.

Literature Review

Much of the existing literature concerns data regarding the efficacy of SIS focuses on injection drug use and its consequences (e.g. HIV/AID infection rates, drug use patterns, overdose rates, etc.) From a public health perspective, these facilities are effective. Many of the research studies are observational studies, following a group of drug users. Others look at aggregate trends: for instance, a study on overdose mortality in Vancouver before and after the opening of the facility utilized data from the British Columbia Coroners Service. In “Impact of a medically supervised safer injection facility on community drug use patterns: a before and after study”, the authors observe drug use patterns of a sample of drug users before and after the facility is established. They find no significant increase in relapses and no significant decrease in quitting drug use. This suggests the SIS in Vancouver generally does not encourage drug use.

There exists literature analyzing the costs of healthcare associated with drug use in order to determine if the facilities were cost effective. For instance, in “The cost-effectiveness of Vancouver’s supervised injection facility”, Ahmed M. Bayoumi and Gregory S. Zaric modeled the effects of a supervised injection site on HIV infection rates in order to predict the healthcare costs saved associated with averting these cases. They project a decrease in HIV infection rates even if sites only resulted in a decrease in needle sharing. Given the facility also promotes safer needle sharing practices and provides referrals to treatment centers, the researchers conclude the benefits of the facility far outweigh costs incurred.

As people generally associate drug use with crime, concerns regarding the effect of an SIS on crime rates in the neighborhood are brought up in debates. Additionally, much research has linked drug use with crime. In “The statistical association between drug misuse and crime: A meta-analysis”, the authors analyze 30 different studies from 1980 to 2004 in order to determine whether there is an association between drug use and crime, as well as the strength of the association (if there was one). They found that cocaine and heroin drug users have the highest odds of offending. Given the demonstrated link between drug use and crime, research should look into the effect a supervised injection site would have on crime rates within the city. Will the establishment of the facility encourage crime?

While healthcare costs are a major side to consider when discussing supervised injection sites, there exists less literature on crime rates. The use of police resources to report drug related crimes impose another cost associated with drug use. Therefore, it may be enlightening to further explore the impact on crime rates.


I use data from Statistics Canada, a government agency dedicated to providing statistics regarding Canada and its population. “Incident-based crime statistics, by detailed violations, Canada, provinces, territories and Census Metropolitan Areas” is drawn from data collected by the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey. As a result, this data is highly accurate as the figures come entirely from police departments across the country.

However, as only police are surveyed, unreported crimes are not reflected in the statistics. Undetected crimes would also not be included in the data. Additionally, while there are categories concerning drug possession and other drug related crimes (such as traffic accidents), there is not an aggregate category combining all of this data. This constrains how specific the datasets can get. However, looking at general trends for violent crime and property crime can still be informative.

I look at the data from the years 1998 to 2018. As the facility was established in September 2003, I will compare crime statistics from before and after 2003. Crime is the dependent variable, with time as the independent variable. I look at crimes such as possession and trafficking, as well as total violent crimes.

Incidents of both heroin possession and trafficking seemed to increase past 2003 (with a few declines here and there). However, it is worth noting that Insite provides a safe place to inject drugs -- while they offer support and services for quitting drugs, their main purpose is to address health concerns of utilizing needles.

While other factors could influence the number of violent crimes reported to the police, it is worth noting that, in general, crime at least did not see a consistent upward trend after Insite’s establishment in 2003.


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