Editorial: Massachusetts must consider supervised drug consumption sites

This past week, the state Legislature’s Harm Reduction Commission — the advisory group looking at solutions to the drug epidemic — released its report. As expected, the commission, which is made up of current and former drug users as well as doctors, government officials and experts in law enforcement, is pushing strongly for supervised consumption sites.

Supervised consumption sites are basically places people can go to take drugs, often injected drugs, in a safe environment. While it may seem counterintuitive that such spaces can be used to fight the drug problem, the commission makes a strong case to establish them.

But the federal government doesn’t want to hear about it, and Governor Charlie Baker seems to be deferring to them, potentially shutting down a life-saving idea that has worked in Canada.

First some statistics, culled from the commission’s own report:

There were more than 70,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2017, a nearly 10 percent increase from the previous year.

Accidental opioid overdose deaths now exceed deaths from motor vehicle accidents and firearm deaths in the U.S.

Massachusetts is one of the 10 states with the highest rates of opioid-related deaths. It is also one of the few states where deaths have declined over the past year, but at the same time, non-fatal drug overdose emergencies have increased.

State Rep. Jeff Roy, D-Franklin, said he was skeptical of supervised consumption sites when he joined the commission, but told WBUR that he learned no one has died after an overdose in any such facility in Canada, including one opened in 2003. Roy told the radio station that not only did the facilities save lives, but they provided compassion, commitment, and understanding to people going through the horrific disease of addiction.

A critic of the program, Cynthia Goldberg, who works with people addicted to drugs, says that the supervised consumption sites might make it easier for people to avoid treatment.

“The most success is when I see a client say, ‘I simply can’t live like this anymore; I need help,’” Goldberg told WBUR. “I’m not so sure they’re going to ask for help in those sites.”

While Goldberg has vast experience, limiting treatment options that could save lives seems like entirely the wrong way to go. Commission members with experience in many aspects of the drug problem have said these are spaces that can have a positive effect.

In offering a space with resources to offer medical treatment, that gives drug users more of an opportunity to seek help and get better rather than having their lives cut short through overdose and continued drug dependence.

The Trump Administration, meanwhile, is doing everything it can to block the establishment of such spaces. In August, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said that providing a place for people to use heroin is a violation of federal law — and that states which allow them can expect to be sued by the federal government.

This is the same line we’ve heard before about states that have legalized marijuana. Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling, a Trump nominee, had said last year he would enforce federal marijuana laws despite the fact that Massachusetts had legalized recreational sale in 2016. He later backtracked, saying marijuana would not be a focus.

At the time, however, he had Gov. Baker opposing the enforcement of anti-marijuana federal law. This time around, when actual lives are on the line, Baker is acquiescing.

“I’d much rather focus on stuff that we can do and are doing rather than on something that the feds have made very clear they’re not going to permit us to do,” he said of the potentially life-saving supervised consumption sites.

In Western Mass, Northampton-based Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan is modeling behavior Baker should learn from by asking the federal government to back off and allow Massachusetts the space to protect its own citizens.

The fact is the Legislature could (and should!) pass a law allowing such sites in Massachusetts, and then, just like recreational marijuana and universal health care, our state could be a pioneer in creating solutions for national problems. And unlike the manufactured crisis at the border, everyone agrees that the drug epidemic is a national emergency.

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