Risk of Overdose Rises Following Closure of Iceland’s Only Safe Injection Site

Iceland’s only safe injection site, a temporary project operated by the Icelandic Red Cross, shuttered on March 6. A Red Cross employee told RÚV such sites decrease the risk of overdose among intravenous drug users in addition to saving funding within the healthcare and social service system. Over 100 individuals used the safe injection site within the last year, many of them unhoused, during over 1,200 visits.

Ylja, as the safe injection site was called, opened in May of last year and was a temporary pilot project operated by the Icelandic Red Cross. Like safe injection sites abroad, Ylja offered a safe environment for those 18 years of age and older to inject intravenous drugs under the supervision of trained nurses, who ensured sanitation, safety, and infection prevention practices were followed. Safe injection sites are a harm reduction service that can prevent overdose and death among users of intravenous drugs. They can also connect clients to other essential services they may require.

Assists a marginalised group and saves public funds

“We need housing and the funding to pay for it, in order to operate a safe injection site. There is a lack of political will to approve it,” stated Marín Þórsdóttir, the department head of the Icelandic Red Cross’ capital area department. In 2015 and 2022, the Icelandic parliament shelved bills to decriminalise drug possession for personal use. Minister of Health Willum Þór Þórsson promised to submit a new, revised bill last autumn but has yet to do so.

Marín adds that with Ylja’s closure, the Red Cross loses staff that is specialised in harm reduction, primarily nurses. While operating a safe injection site requires considerable funding, Marín says it ultimately saves public funds. “We are tending to a very marginalised group that receives little service, experiences perpetual discrimination in society, and it’s just savings, both within our healthcare and social services system by having a safe injection site and assisting people with harm reduction resources.”

Read more: In Harm’s Way

Economic and social factors appear to impact drug use in Iceland, according to the research of Dr. Arndís Sue-Ching Löve, an assistant professor at the University of Iceland. Her studies show that cocaine use decreased in Iceland during the COVID-19 pandemic, but increased again last year to around pre-pandemic levels. The increase may be partially explained by increased prosperity: a similar pattern was seen before the banking collapse in Iceland.