Activists behind the effort to establish safe, supervised injection sites for drug users have ratcheted up the pressure on the one person they believe can make that a reality in Massachusetts — Gov. Charlie Baker.
Appreciative of the leadership the governor has shown in the fight against opioid abuse, supporters of locations where drug users could shoot up in the presence of medical personnel have been unrelenting as they mount another persuasion campaign.
Whatever his personal opinion, the governor has maintained a pragmatic approach. That’s why, as recently as February, he indicated Massachusetts shouldn’t experiment with supervised drug-injection sites, since U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling has clearly stated he would prosecute anyone involved with such a facility.
Unlike the federal government’s hands-off position on marijuana, which is still considered an illegal Schedule 1 drug — a highly addictive substance with no medical value — it draws the line on state-sponsored shoot-up galleries.
That’s despite feedback from state commissions — like the one Baker established in Massachusetts — that have concluded despite legality concerns, safe injection sites have merit and should be explored.
Supervised injection sites exist in Canada and other countries. They allow addicts to use drugs under the watch of medical professionals without risk of arrest.
Supporters likened apprehension about injection sites to feelings many once had about clean-needle programs and the use of naloxone (Narcan), the overdose-reversal drug.
Clean-needle programs have been shown to reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis among drug users, an especially vulnerable population.
In Lowell, a coalition behind a new program called Peer Education and Risk Reduction Services (PEERRS) has shown success in helping people at high risk for overdose as well as HIV, hepatitis C, and other infectious drugs. PEERRS provides drug users with HIV and hepatitis C testing, referrals to detox and addiction-treatment programs, and a variety of other services.
This safe injection site concept takes this oversight one step further by personally ensuring addicts suffer no ill effects from the drugs they take, in addition to providing drug-counseling and rehab resources.
At this point, we believe the Baker administration would need more data to show that safe injection facilities actually steer drug users toward treatment before it would risk a showdown with federal law enforcement. Up to this point, the governor doesn’t believe that’s the case.
But these supervised sites do have the backing of some in the medical community, including the Massachusetts Medical Society.
While it’s true deaths in Massachusetts from opioid-related overdoses declined in 2018 for the second consecutive year, this substance-abuse epidemic still took nearly 2,000 lives last year.
It’s obvious other measures must be explored in order to get the upper hand on this plague, and supervised injection sites might be one of them.
A strictly controlled pilot program in a hospital setting would provide the data to either support or dismiss the efficacy of such an approach.
That’s the argument which should be made to the governor, state lawmakers and U.S. Attorney Lelling.