Having grown up in Sandwich, I know how closely the overdose crisis affects our families, communities, and state. When I graduated high school in 2015, Barnstable County had the third-highest population-adjusted fatal overdose rate in Massachusetts. The following year we were grimly ranked second.
While the Cape seems to be ever-changing, shifting with the tides and seasons, somehow, tragically, this epidemic seems to have become an immutable new normal.
We need to be bold, compassionate, and evidence-based in our responses to the overdose crisis and we currently have a chance to support legislation that does just that. House Bill 2088, presented by Rep. Dylan Fernandes of Falmouth, would sanction supervised consumption sites (SCS) in Massachusetts. These sites would staff trained professionals to monitor individuals as they use pre-obtained drugs, providing life-saving first aid if an overdose occurs.
Extensive research has shown the positive impacts of SCS. The Drug Policy Alliance reports there has not been a single overdose death at any of the approximately 120 SCS operating worldwide. They’re an especially important tool in preventing fatal overdoses involving fentanyl, the powerful and fast-acting opioid that now drives opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a new, even more dire phase of the crisis. The National Center for Health Statistics found that more than 100,000 Americans died of overdose in the first year of the pandemic, an almost 30% increase from the year prior. Between 2019 and 2020, Falmouth reported a similar 20% increase in overdoses. Every one of these tragedies is preventable but, to do so, we need to commit to new strategies.
As other states invest in SCS, Massachusetts should do the same. In July, Rhode Island approved a pilot program similar to that which is proposed in Massachusetts, becoming the first state in the country to legalize SCS. On Nov. 30, New York City authorized the opening of two SCS. On their first day open, program staff reversed two overdoses. Massachusetts now has the same opportunity to better serve and protect community members who use drugs.
People who use drugs will continue to use whether SCS exist or not; it is not protective, evidence-based, or equitable to keep them from having access to places where they can do so safely.
It’s anticipated that the Biden administration will soon weigh in on previous SCS-related rulings. Furthermore, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Xavier Becerra stated HHS would not intervene with the establishment of local SCS. An HHS spokesperson did walk back this initial comment, however, stating that it’s a matter of ongoing litigation.
However, as Rhode Island and New York have shown, states can respond to the crisis by legalizing SCS at the state level. In doing so, they’re able to better protect their residents, regardless of federal-level rulings impeding proven interventions.
In January, the Cape Cod Times published an article on the worsening overdose crisis, reporting that, “People are losing hope.” For all of us affected, the current situation does seem hopeless. However, I believe there is hope if we move away from the current status quo and toward proven life-saving interventions, even if they seem radical at first.
By supporting safe consumption sites and House Bill 2088, we have the power to turn hope into action.
Katherine Dunham is a member of the Yale School of Public Health Class of 2023.
This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: The case for supervised consumption sites in massachusetts