The numbers tell the story: Opioid addiction is now the biggest drug epidemic in U.S. history. 67.8 percent, more than two thirds of all drug overdose deaths in 2017, are linked to opioids — OxyContin, Vicodin, codeine, heroin and so-called synthetic opioids like fentanyl. If you haven’t heard, the addition of fentanyl to heroin has made what was an urgent public health problem something far more devastating. Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention culled the data from the National Vital Statistics System, which reviewed overdose deaths from 2013-2017. Here in Massachusetts, the totals are sobering — one out of 20 adults and older kids abuse opioids.
Again, the numbers tell the story: The American Psychiatric Association reports nearly one third of all Americans say they know someone who is opioid addicted — that means thousands of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, and neighbors who have fallen victim to the power of the drugs. Increased awareness of the epidemic through one-on-one relationships has helped to reduce the stigma of drug addiction and to reframe opioid addiction from a crime to an illness. From medicines like Narcan, which can reverse an overdose in seconds, to counseling programs, to in-house detox programs, opioid addiction prevention and support is much more widely embraced than even a couple of years ago. But the most successful treatment intervention, so-called "safe injection" sites, has been rejected out of hand. Could Massachusetts lead the way?
It’s hard to ignore the success of medically supervised centers, which allow addicts to consume illicit drugs like opiates off the street and in a safe space. And yet again, the numbers tell the story: In Vancouver, Canada, where a Supervised Consumption Site has been operational since 2003, there has not been one overdose since the facility opened. Not one. According to organizers, InSite, as the facility is known, typically see 600 visits a day. Their message? “Don’t use alone, we’re not here to judge.” Here in Boston, we can add Mayor Marty Walsh’s name to a growing list of former critics who are reconsidering the potential of safe injection sites. The mayor told The Boston Globe, “I think if it keeps people alive, I think it’s worth exploring.” But Gov. Charlie Baker is unmoved, despite the recent recommendation of a state legislative commission to create one or two test sites. Massachusetts is not alone in examining the possibility of testing current law. Philadelphia, Seattle and San Francisco are also looking into safe injection sites.
We have moved to accept other treatments that were at one time illegal — medical marijuana is another tool for pain relief. Clean needle exchanges are commonplace. I see safe injection sites as the next accepted nontraditional treatment. The biggest drug epidemic ever in U.S. history requires something out of the ordinary to reclaim the opioid addicts whose numbers are still on the rise.