Advocates for safe consumption sites in Massachusetts find hope in shifting political winds as overdose deaths soar
What Sciortino and others are waiting for and working for is the creation of centers, which have long been discussed, where people can bring in drugs they have obtained elsewhere and use them under the watchful eyes of a staff qualified person who can help anyone who has overdosed.
Shifting political winds here and around the country have bolstered optimism among advocates, even as startling news over the past week of an increase in opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts reinforces their sense of urgency.
“There have been a lot of changes at the regional, local level, which I think are building momentum,” said State Rep. Dylan A. Fernandes, sponsor of a bill that would establish a pilot program for 10 years involving two or more of these centers, often referred to as safe consumption sites. “There is no doubt that we have to act on this. And the data clearly shows that safe drinking sites save lives and inspire people to seek treatment. »
Fernandes’ bill won committee approval earlier this month and is now heading to another committee.
Meanwhile, Rhode Island has already passed legislation allowing such sites, the first state to do so. And while Somerville officials had pledged to open the nation’s first safe drinking site, New York City beat them to it, opening two sites in November.
OnPoint NYC, the agency that manages these sites, reported on May 31 that in its first six months, the agency had averted 314 overdoses and safely disposed of nearly 500,000 syringes that might otherwise have ended up in public parks.
Safe consumption sites – also called supervised injection sites, overdose prevention centers and harm reduction centers – provide a hygienic place where people can bring drugs obtained elsewhere and inject or inhale them in full view of professionals. trained ready to intervene in the event of an overdose. Clients also have access to clean injection equipment and staff who can refer them to health care, including drug treatment.
Sciortino, who visited one of the New York sites, described it as a four-story building offering a range of social and medical services; the room where people use drugs is the smallest component, he said.
There are nearly 200 overdose prevention centers around the world, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. But these centers have been considered illegal in the United States. The “Federal Crack House Act” makes it a crime to “knowingly open, rent, lease, use, or maintain any place, permanently or temporarily, for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using a controlled substance.”
Proponents say the law does not apply to a facility with a public health purpose and the goal of saving lives. Yet the Trump administration’s Justice Department went to court to prevent a similar site from opening in Philadelphia.
In Massachusetts, former Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said he would deploy “law enforcement” if such a site opened in that state.
But the Biden administration has taken no action to shut down the New York facility. And President Biden’s choice for US Attorney in Massachusetts Rachael Rollins publicly supported safe injection sites in her previous role as Suffolk County prosecutor. However, she has not commented on the issue since becoming a US attorney in January, and her office did not respond to a question from The Globe last week.
The political tides are also turning in state government. Governor Charlie Baker, who has long opposed the sites, is stepping down. The leading candidate to replace him, Attorney General Maura Healey, has expressed support for safe consumption sites.
Fernandes, who represents Falmouth, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, said the opioid crisis has deeply affected her community. Over a three-year period, a dozen youngsters from just one elementary school in Falmouth lost a parent to an overdose, he said. “It is immoral that we leave tools on the table that we know could save lives,” he said.
He hopes his bill will pass before the end of the current legislative session on July 31, but if not, Fernandes said, he will reintroduce it.
Rhode Island’s first law in the nation allows safe consumption sites under a two-year pilot program.
The state Department of Health drafted regulations and issued a request for proposals. So far no one has responded, but Project Weber/RENEW, which provides needle exchange and other services, is interested in developing a site in partnership with Victa, a treatment program.
Programs director Annajane Yolken said Project Weber/RENEW is exploring places in Providence where Mayor Jorge Elorza has been a strong supporter.
Meanwhile, Somerville forges ahead – and gains what appears to be broad support among its citizens; the city’s new mayor, Katjana Ballantyne, enthusiastically took over the ball from her predecessor.
Somerville has already begun investing in the project: the city has spent $12,000 for a feasibility study by Brown University School of Public Health and $40,000 for further study by Fenway Health, which has engaged with residents and businesses, assessing locations and providing a framework. for the program.
The city has also provided $500,000 to supplement an existing fund that will pay for the operation of the site.
“We know the crisis is getting worse,” said Nikki Spencer, the mayor’s chief of staff. “The vast majority of feedback we’ve had so far has been supportive and positive.”
Some 200 people signed up for an online community forum on June 1. In a poll before the forum started, 60% said they were already in favor of the idea, 18% were curious and 11% opposed, Sciortino said.
The biggest fear expressed by residents is that the site will become a magnet for drug addicts or dealers, luring troublemakers into the community, Sciortino said.
But people already living in the community need the service, Sciortino said, citing three recent overdoses in Davis Square. Safe consumption sites in Canada and New York have found that their customers come from nearby and people don’t tend to travel for such services. Studies have found no increase in crime around these sites.
Fenway’s team is investigating possible locations on municipal property in Davis Square and East Somerville where clusters of overdoses have occurred. They are considering a range of options, from repurposing a building to parking a trailer in a lot, Sciortino said.
He envisions a phased approach, with the program expanding as more people take advantage of it.
“We have to start somewhere. We have to start saving lives. We have to prove the concept,” he said. Years ago, the first needle exchanges – intended to prevent the spread of AIDS – operated illegally. Today, there are dozens of them across the state, accepted as vital, vital services.
A safe consumption site, Sciortino said, “is the next step.”