By Caroline Smith
BU News Service
BOSTON — Massachusetts had 1,617 confirmed opioid overdose deaths in 2018, in the wake of which lawmakers are seriously considering “harm reduction sites” which could potentially decrease the death toll.
Bills H.1712 and S.1134 support implementing safe injection sites by looking at previous models in other states and countries. H.1712 would essentially allow for a safe injection site pilot program, while S.1134 would focus on researching the feasibility of opening a site.
Philadelphia recently won a legal battle over its first site, Safehouse, on Oct. 2. The local judge ruled that the site’s goal of reducing drug use does not violate the “Crack House” federal law statute, according to Safehouse’s website.
On Oct. 1, the Massachusetts Legislature’s joint committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery heard testimonies from state representatives, executive officeholders and citizens who have experienced the opioid crisis firsthand.
As a supporter on S.1134, Rep. Lindsay N. Sabadosa (D-Northampton) said she supports harm reduction models and believes Massachusetts could help lead the country, alongside Pennsylvania.
“Sadly, I wish this was happening 20 years ago because frankly, we’ve known that we were in an opiate crisis forever, so the time has really come and pass,” Sabadosa said following the testimonies.
In her district, Sabadosa noted that people often use public spaces—such as local businesses’ restrooms or remote areas in the woods—to inject illicit drugs, putting themselves at risk of overdosing without access to emergency responders.
“I can’t even imagine being a business owner in downtown Northampton and worrying that somebody is going to overdose in your bathroom,” Sabadosa said. “You want to have restrooms, you want people to feel safe and welcome in your facilities. You certainly don’t want someone to go in there and die.”
According to Sabadosa, bills supporting safe injection sites usually receive pushback from the federal government. Another opponent to the bills, Barnstable County Commissioner Ronald Beaty, said the bills will run into trouble since they ignore federal law.
“We’re engaged in a horrific war with this opioid epidemic, and I don’t think that we need state-sponsored shooting-up galleries, which is essentially what these sites would be,” Beaty said, adding that he is “vehemently opposed” to safe consumption sites of any kind.
Beaty said there is no “credible empirical evidence” to prove that safe consumption sites are an effective harm reduction tool. However, Rep. Dylan A. Fernandes D-Falmouth cited data from Vancouver’s safe consumption sites.
“After looking at the data, the commission recommended, ‘a pilot of one or more supervised consumption sites should be part of the Commonwealth’s efforts to combat the opioid crisis,’” Fernandes said, citing the Harm Reduction Commission’s report from March.
Beaty, however, noted that the Commonwealth’s facilitation of federally illegal activity could leave employees and property owners connected to the site facing federal charges. In addition, Beaty said he believes users should be punished for substance abuse.
“I think that people need to have the reality that they’re going to be arrested as part of the punishment and part of the deterrence against using, even though they’re addicts—yeah, they need to be treated—but at the same time, they have to know that there are punitive measures,” Beaty said. “There’s a reason why these things are illegal.”
Rep. Natalie Higgins (D-Leominster), a member of the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use, and Recovery, said the data from the Canadian sites is compelling.
“I’ll be the first to admit when I was on the committee for the first time, last session, I went into the hearing with open ears but maybe some skepticism about, ‘Was this the right next step?’” Higgins said. “We clearly are not on the right side of ending the opioid crisis, and we need to try everything, and nothing should be left off the table at this point.”
Boston-area officials—including Somerville’s mayor, Joseph Curtatone—testified at the hearing, giving his “full and enthusiastic support” for the bills.
“I can think of no greater responsibility as the mayor of Somerville than to promote the health, well-being and safety, and enhancing that for my community,” Curtatone said during the hearing.
Members from the Boston Area Drug Users Union testified too, saying that the opioid overdose crisis has been left in the hands of drug users themselves.
Aubri Esters, an organizer for the Boston Area Drug Users Union and a commissioner for the Harm Reduction Commission, testified that to handle the epidemic, legislators have to look at the systemic problems first.
“If we want to get serious about reducing risks of drug use and fentanyl contamination, we need to fully respond to the inequity, racism, poverty and trauma that many people who use drugs are treating themselves for,” Esters said.
Rep. Higgins said that the committee has until mid-February to get the bills out of committee.