Somerville Safe Injection Site plans in motion, despite potential pushback

By Vivian Myron
BU News Service

Somerville, Mass. — Somerville plans to open the first official US safe injection site within the next year, despite potential pushback at the state and federal levels. The facility would provide Narcan in the event of an overdose, offer access to clean needles and allow people to seek out treatment.

“This isn’t necessarily something that many, many places are embracing,” said Doug Kress, director of the Health and Human Services Department for the City of Somerville. “And so, what specifically led the City of Somerville to feel that it was a necessary step in dealing with the opioid crisis [is that] we care about our residents, we care about our community. We’ve seen too many people lose their lives to this epidemic and we know that we want to do something about it.”

A recent court ruling in Pennsylvania found that safe injection facilities are not a violation of federal law, potentially changing the outlook for proposed safe injection sites across the country, according to the Washington Post.

Although the interpretation of federal law may be shifting, the safe injection facility would still face pushback at the state level, specifically from Massachusetts US Attorney Andrew Lelling.

“’Supervised injection facilities’ would violate federal laws prohibiting the use of illicit drugs and the operation of sites where illicit drugs are used and distributed. Employees and users of such a site would be exposed to federal criminal charges regardless of any state law or study,” read a statement from Lelling’s office.

Safe injection sites are already open in a number of other countries, but there are not yet any legal facilities in the United States. Federal law has prohibited safe injection sites in the past based on the idea that they encourage drug use rather than helping to stem the spread of the epidemic, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

Despite this view, data from InSite, a safe injection facility in Vancouver founded in 2003, does indicate safe injection facilities reduce overdose deaths as well as the transmission of diseases like HIV.

Opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts have been on the rise since 2000. However, they have declined slightly in recent years, according to data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Kress expressed the belief that a safe injection facility, when paired with other community resources would help to lower opioid-related deaths and illnesses resulting from intravenous drug use, as well as providing a path to recovery.

“It’s providing them with a safe space, but if they do overdose that somebody’s there and ready to provide services for them… but more importantly it’s there to offer them access to recovery, access to treatment, access to wound care so that when they are ready to go into treatment things are in place for them in that they have a place to go,” said Kress.

The city intends to open the site sometime in 2020, barring legal pushback and other unforeseen roadblocks. The site would likely be the first of its kind in the US and would be based on similar facilities in Quebec.

“It’s about addiction and the disease of addiction that we have to confront,” said Kress. “And in order to do that, we have to support those who are impacted by addiction itself.”

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