On September 27, Massachusetts lawmakers invited members of the public to speak about safe consumption sites (SCS). The state legislature is considering a bill to authorize SCS in any city that wants one. Rising overdose deaths in the state make the deliberations ever more urgent.
The bill—SB 1272—would allow cities or towns to create pilot SCS programs for 10 years. SCS would have to be approved by local health boards, which would also set health and safety rules for the sites. Municipalities that approve SCS would promise legal protection for participants and staff—important to prevent federal cops from accusing them of drug trafficking.
The public hearing included doctors, lawyers, students, harm reduction workers and people who use drugs.
“The living hell is the life that drug users have no choice but to live,” said Gary Langis, a syringe access advocate who also identified as a drug user. SCS are needed now, he urged, so we don’t repeat past mistakes of blocking solutions that the evidence shows will work—like syringe access during the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“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.”
Chris Alba, a harm reduction specialist and drug user, explained how the purpose of SCS is not to stop people from using drugs, but simply to save lives. “How am I going to talk to somebody about something I may be arrested for having possession of?” he asked. “How am I going to talk to somebody about all these things that are involved with it? I’m not, and we need to get past that.”
“I know I would have never contracted hepatitis C if I had access. In addition my best friend would still be alive.”
Mary Woods, who works in outreach to sex workers, shared her personal story of drug use and disease. She started using opioid pills, then began injecting. She recalled traveling from suburban Belmont to Boston so she could find drugs and people to help her inject.
She would promise strangers a free hit if they would inject in her neck vein. She then developed an abscess, but resisted seeing a doctor until she could barely walk.
“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.”
Last year, Massachusetts saw over 2,100 people die of opioid-involved overdoses, as the COVID-19 pandemic drove up fatalities all over the country. That’s over a hundred more people than died in 2019, and the first year that deaths increased since 2016. Demographically, the largest increase was among Black men, in line with a pattern seen throughout the United States.
Currently, over 100 sanctioned SCS operate in other countries throughout the world. Evidence shows they help reduce the spread of blood-borne diseases like HIV or hepatitis C, as well as injection-related skin or tissue infections. The first legal SCS in North America, Insite in Vancouver, Canada, has supervised over 3.6 million injections and reversed over 6,400 overdoses since opening in 2003. There have been zero recorded fatalities at any SCS, where trained staff are on hand with naloxone.
Currently, SB 1272 is being considered by the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use, which includes both House representatives and state senators. It will need to be passed by committee in both chambers before it can advance to floor votes. The current legislative session ends on December 31.
If the bill passes the legislature, it may still face opposition from Governor Charlie Baker, who in 2019 described SCS as a “non-starter,” saying that the federal government would arrest and prosecute people who open them. Nonetheless, the governor of neighboring Rhode Island made history in July by signing a bill to authorize an SCS pilot program.
Photograph by Supervised Injection Facilities for Massachusetts Now, via Facebook.