Advocates renew push for 'safe injection' sites

·3 min read

Sep. 28—BOSTON — A rise of fatal opioid overdoses has revived a push on Beacon Hill for state-sanctioned sites where addicts can shoot drugs under the supervision of health care workers.

Lawmakers heard pitches on Monday for a pilot program that would create supervised sites for drug use.

Dr. Catharina Armstrong, a physician in Spectrum Health Systems' Medications for Opioid Use Disorder Program, was among several doctors and harm-reduction experts who urged lawmakers to approve legislation setting up the sites.

"Safe consumption sites will save lives, money, and morally it's the right choice for the commonwealth," Armstrong told members of the Committee on Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Recovery during a livestreamed hearing.

The strategy remains illegal under federal law, and it drew threats of legal action in 2019 by then-U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling, who said anyone who uses or works at such a facility would face federal charges.

Gov. Charlie Baker, who has made addressing opioid addiction a focus, has cited threats of a federal crackdown as part of the reason not to pursue the idea. Lelling resigned in February, along with other U.S. attorneys appointed during President Donald Trump's administration.

Critics say injection sites normalize drug use and are based on misleading studies and arguments.

"I don't think this is the right approach," Boston City Councilor Frank Baker, who has lost several family members to opioid addiction, told lawmakers Monday. "We need to focus on treatment."

Similar proposals have been debated for years but failed to win support on Beacon Hill.

The Senate approved an injection site proposal in 2018 as part an opioid bill, but the measure didn't make it into the final version of the legislation. A year later, a state commission recommended that Massachusetts test one or two supervised sites to study their effectiveness.

If lawmakers approve the recent plan, Massachusetts would become the second state to take the controversial step. Rhode Island Gov. Daniel McKee signed a bill in July approving a two-year test of supervised use sites, making it the first state to authorize the approach.

Canada, the Netherlands and Australia have had injection sites for heroin addicts for years, which many state proposals are modeled on.

After several years of decline, opioid-related overdose deaths increased in Massachusetts during the pandemic.

There were 2,104 confirmed and suspected opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts in 2020 — a 5% rise over the previous year, according to state health data.

Medical groups who support the sites say supervised injection, albeit controversial, saves lives and improves public health.

"There has never been a more critical time for the state to pass legislation expanding the public health approach to the overdose crisis," Dr. Carole Allen, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said in a statement. "Low-barrier treatment and other harm reduction services promoted by the state have been crucial, but the data clearly show that more and novel options are needed to prevent overdose deaths and save lives."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@northofboston.com.

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