State Dems back bill to decriminalize safe injection sites

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 02-20-2023 12:45 PM

Pioneer Valley advocates in favor of overdose prevention centers may see their ideas realized this year by legislation from state lawmakers.

The Massachusetts Democratic State Committee announced in January that it had endorsed a House bill presented by state Reps. Dylan Fernandes and Marjorie Decker, along with a Senate bill filed by Sen. Julian Cyr, that would decriminalize the prevention centers.

Also known as safe injection sites, such centers allow those struggling with addiction to drugs like fentanyl and heroin to have a secure area to use drugs freely without risk of arrest, overdose or contracting diseases such as HIV.

“We need common sense law enforcement, and that doesn’t mean preventing our doctors, nurses and health care workers from providing life-saving medical care,” said Justin Klekota, a Democratic State Committee member from Somerville in a statement put out by the state Democratic Party. “If we change the law, we will save lives.”

Locally, Tapestry Health implemented needle exchanges beginning in the 1990s, the first such implementation in the state outside of Boston, according to Liz Whynott, the director of harm reduction services at the Springfield-based organization, which provides services to Franklin, Hampshire, Hampden and Berkshire counties.

“The state in the past few years has taken some serious formal steps to advocate for overdose prevention sites, and Tapestry has always been supportive of that,” Whynott said. “This would be a natural extension of what we already do.”

Whynott said one of the biggest factors in drug use that can lead to an overdose is when someone uses alone, and that many drug users face the prospect of isolation due to addiction and the illegality of drugs they use. Prevention centers, she said, would help reduce the chance of using alone, and would provide supervision.

“It’s supervised by a professional, supervised by people equipped to be there for them in case anything happens,” Whynott said.

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Prevention centers are illegal nearly everywhere in the United States, with the first authorized centers opening in New York City in 2021. The practice is legal, however, in Canada, along with several European countries such as Portugal and Germany.

Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan visited a prevention center in Toronto in 2018, getting an up-close view of their function in action. Sullivan has long advocated for overdose prevention centers, writing an opinion piece in the Daily Hampshire Gazette that they could be used to combat the opioid crisis in the state.

“It has a dual purpose. It not only provides a safe haven for use, but it gives another step toward making decisions about recovery,” Sullivan said in an interview. “These sites are really compassionate places and I was very impressed with the fact that they were taking care of people. The whole idea is to keep people alive until they get into recovery.”

Sullivan dismissed concerns that such centers would become hotspots where those who face addiction could congregate, noting that in Canada, many of the overdose prevention centers he saw were discreet and went unnoticed even in low-income areas.

“It just didn’t have that draw, so to speak,” he said. “They don’t create any additional crime.”

Between 2020 and 2021, deaths from drug overdoses increased 8.8% in Massachusetts. In 2021, 2,290 residents died of an opioid-related overdose, with fentanyl present in 93% of the cases where a toxicology report was available, according to the state Democratic Party. Overdose prevention centers have been shown to save lives by reducing overdose fatalities and, to date, there have been no overdose fatalities recorded at any of the 120 overdose prevention centers operating in 10 countries.

“I don’t believe we can count out any option that has the potential to save lives from substance use disorder,” said Cyr, D-Truro, chair of the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery.

In a 2019 report to the Massachusetts Legislature, the state’s Harm Reduction Commission identified current law as an obstacle to public health, writing: “In order to pursue a pilot program of one or more supervised consumption sites, the challenges the commonwealth must address include any gaps in legal protections for organizations and individuals who would staff a supervised consumption site and any state criminal and civil laws that may pose a barrier.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.

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