Parents who have lost children, or almost lost them, in the opioid epidemic came to the State House Thursday to urge the passage of a bill that would allow overdose prevention centers to be set up in local cities and towns.
Overdose prevention centers are staffed by medical personnel and allow people to use substances while being monitored to prevent a fatal overdose. They are technically illegal under federal law — though one is successfully operating in New York City.
The parents shared their heartbreak and frustration that more hasn’t been done sooner to help stem the tide of overdose deaths in the commonwealth — over 2000 deaths a year for almost a decade now.
Cheryl Juaire of Marlborough lost two sons to overdoses— Corey in 2011, and then his brother Sean in 2021— she said she had mistakenly used a “tough love” approach with her son Corey, shutting him out of her home, and refusing to talk to him about his addiction.
“And then I got the phone call,” Juaire said, referring to being told her son had suffered a fatal overdose. “And so began my years of grieving, my years of guilt, my years of suffering, and now my advocacy. … Our loved ones can walk into these centers unashamed and be treated like the human beings they are. …They are offered food, showers, clothing and haircuts. But dignity — and to me this is the most important.”
Juaire highlighted that drug users are also offered recovery services in overdose prevention centers.
The state’s Department of Public Health has been emphasizing that as well; in a report last month the department cited one statistic showing that the establishment of an overdose prevention center in Vancouver “resulted in a 35% decrease in overdose deaths within its high-use neighborhood.”
The bill under consideration would set up a 10-year pilot program giving municipalities state permission to set up overdose prevention centers; it would require local approval by boards of health, and also include state-level civil and criminal protections for the centers, their staff and their clients. Federal prosecution is at the discretion of each jurisdiction’s U.S. attorney.
The Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery has until February 7 to move the bill forward or request an extension on doing so.
At the Thursday event, several parents spoke through tears, their voices breaking in emotion, like Laurie McDougall of Dartmouth, who said she and other parents are “outraged” that there were not more resources for them and their family members with opioid use disorder.
“Actually, we need it yesterday. Yesterday,” McDougall said. “And you mark my words, there are hundreds, if not thousands of families out there running their own overdose prevention centers within their homes that do not believe in tough love and pushing people away. Let us set people up so that they can recover. Let's stop punishing them for behavioral health, for being human.”