The Massachusetts Senate scrapped a provision in a major bill to combat the opioid crisis on Thursday, July 19. The provision would have established a safe-injection site for substance users as a step toward their recovery. These sites enable people to inject illegal drugs under direct supervision of healthcare professionals. Here, they could’ve also received medical attention, therapy, and referrals for additional treatment options.

Prior to the senate vote, U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling commented that safe-injection site users could still be subject to prosecution under federal law.

“’Supervised injection facilities’ would violate federal laws prohibiting the use of illicit drugs and the operation of sites where illicit drugs are used and distributed,” said Mr. Lelling in a statement. “Employees and users of such a site would be exposed to federal criminal charges regardless of any state law or study.”

The bill, however, establishes a commission that will study best practices, possible areas for improvement, and the overall feasibility of safe-injection sites. The commission must submit a report of its findings to the state legislature by February 2019.

Governor Charlie Baker told the Boston Globe on Thursday he thinks “sanctioning heroin injection facilities does not reduce overdose deaths and these facilities are not a responsible tool to combat the opioid  epidemic.”

Gov. Baker’s hesitation to greenlight the use of illicit substances, even in the name of harm reduction, is understandable; the opioid crisis continues to wreak havoc on individuals and communities across the state and the country. Data from the Mass. Department of Public Health confirms that there were at least 201 opioid-related overdose deaths from January to March of this year, and estimates an additional 240 to 305 deaths.

But there’s no denying the effectiveness of safe-injection sites. A study from 2014 analyzed 75 scientific articles and found that overall, safe-injection sites successfully promote safer injection conditions for users, through provisions like clean needles; reduce overdose frequency; reduce public syringe disposal; and yield no increase in injections, trafficking, and crime in areas surrounding the sites.

Vancouver opened the first safe-injection site in North America in 2003. In 2011, a study showed that overdose deaths within a half mile of the Vancouver facility dropped significantly while change occurred across the rest of the city. Average monthly ambulance calls for Narcan treatment also dropped, as did reported cases of HIV contraction.

Safe-injection sites are also an efficient use of public funds. Data from the first five years of the Vancouver program indicated the city saved more than $6 million annually.


Image via Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism