Massachusetts lawmakers are holding a public hearing Monday for a number of bills dealing with drug reform, including three bills that could open the door for safe consumption sites — sometimes known as safe injection sites — to open in the state.
It’s a move that advocates hope would push the state more towards a public health strategy to helping those in need as the nation continues to struggle with drug use and overdose deaths.
Oami Amarasingham, deputy legislative director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, which supports the bills, said the ACLU has long supported shifting to a public health approach to drug policy rather than a criminal one. Safe consumption sites, she said, provide spaces where people could be connected with medical help if necessary and broadly increase safety when they’re using.
“Safe consumption sites is one piece of that puzzle,” she said. “It’s a harm-reduction measure that’s critically important and that’s had great success in other countries.”
The different bills would have a range of impacts, from mandating the state Department of Public Health to look into the feasibility of supervised consumption sites to authorizing a pilot program.
Amarasingham said the overdose death rate increased during the COVID-19 pandemic — generally and at even higher rates for Black, Latinx and Asian American communities. Estimates from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health show there were approximately 2,100 opioid-related overdose deaths in the Commonwealth last year, up from roughly 2,000 the previous three years.
If the bills were to gain traction, Massachusetts wouldn’t be alone: Over the summer, Rhode Island Governor Daniel McKee signed legislation approving the creation of a two-year pilot program for supervised use sites in the state, making it the first state in the United States to do so.
On Friday, McKee ceremonially signed the legislation, along with several other health care–related laws. Rhode Island State Senator Joshua Miller, who chairs the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services and who sponsored the legislation, said such sites offer an opportunity to prevent needless deaths, especially with climbing overdose deaths and the ongoing threat of fentanyl-laced drugs.
“If we are truly going to rein in the drug overdose epidemic, we must recognize drug addiction as the health problem it is, rather than as merely a crime,” Miller said in a statement. “Having a place where someone can save them from an overdose and where there are people offering them the resources they need for treatment is a much better alternative to people dying alone in their homes or their cars.”
Amarasingham said it’s more important now than ever to address the problem with public health solutions.
“We just cannot arrest our way out of a public health crisis,” she said. “We have tried to do that for 50 years, and it is absolutely clear that that is not working and it’s time to try something new.”