September 27 saw hundreds flock to the Massachusetts capitol to testify in favor of safe consumption sites. Currently, the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery is considering S1272. This bill would create a 10 year pilot program for safe consumption sites in the state. Cities and towns would need to approve each site with local health care professionals. Participants in the program as well as staff must also receive legal protections from law enforcement to not be accused of drug trafficking.
Each safe consumption site would use harm reduction methods, such as clinical monitoring of pre-obtained drugs. Participants would consume their desired substance in the presence of trained staff, who can react properly should an overdose happen. Research shows safe consumption sites help reduce blood-borne disease transmission, such as HIV and Hepatitis C, along with preventing overdose deaths.
Massachusetts saw its first increase in recent years of opioid overdose deaths in 2020 at 2,100. There were 100 deaths more than the previous year and an overall increase since 2016. The state had been trending down until then.
In North America, there is only one safe consumption site operating, called Insite. It’s located in Vancouver, Canada and has been in operation since 2003. Since opening its doors, there have been over 3.6 million supervised injections as well as 6,400 reversed overdoses. This safe consumption site has shown a zero percent fatality rate with trained staff who know how to use Naloxone, an opioid antagonist.
Several people testified in favor of S1272, including academics, healthcare professionals, lawmakers, and consumers. One safe consumption site advocate, Gary Langis, spoke about the need for sites. “The living hell is the life that drug users have no choice but to live,” he explained. “There’s no place [for people] to consume their drugs other than a bathroom in some restaurant,” he described. “So it’s really important that we have a place … We need a place where people go access care—like, someone to listen to. That’s treatment for a drug user.”
SCS are needed now, Langis added, so past mistakes of blocking solutions that the evidence shows will work aren’t repeated—like syringe access during the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Another safe consumption site advocate, Mary Woods, shared her personal experience with drug use with the joint committee members. “I’m here sharing my story for SCS because I know I would have never contracted hepatitis C if I had access to SCS,” Woods said. “In addition my best friend would still be alive because she died of an infected injection site on her arm. She died hepatitis C-positive, so I’m here for the two of us today.”
The joint committee only heard testimony on September 27. They did not take any action. It’s unclear if they will move forward with the safe consumption pilot program or not. Should they move forward, S1272 will need to pass both the House and the Senate before heading to Governor Charlie Baker, R, for his signature.
Even if the bill makes it that far, there could still be opposition from Governor Baker, who, in 2019, described safe consumption sites as unnecessary . He then added that the federal government should arrest and prosecute those who open them.
Still, safe consumption sites are being talked about. Rhode Island legalized sites earlier this year while California lawmakers are discussing a bill for sites in 2022’s regular session. Should more information come from Massachusetts regarding safe consumption sites, we will update you with the latest.
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