Somerville makes push for mobile drug consumption site
Key advocate says approach has worked well internationally
SOMERVILLE is making strides toward being the first city or town in Massachusetts to open a supervised drug consumption site, an initiative that advocates say has shown promise internationally in combating overdoses.
“If we have this tool that works, then nobody needs to die,” said Sarah Evans, the division director of drug policy at the international Open Society Foundations, on the Codcast. Evans ran the first overdose prevention site in North America for eight years – InSight in Vancouver. After two decades and more than 90 worldwide safe consumption sites, no one has died at one of those centers, Evans said.
Recently released data shows Massachusetts opioid-related deaths rose in 2022. Deaths in Middlesex County, which contains Somerville, rose by 6.5 percent over the year compared to the statewide jump of 2.5 percent. Introducing safe consumption sites, where people can consume otherwise illegal drugs they have already obtained in a monitored setting with medical staff present and without the risk of legal repercussions, would not primarily be aimed at reducing overall drug use.
“This is about saving lives,” said Somerville mayor Katjana Ballantyne. “For the city of Somerville, that’s 15 to 20 lives a year. Those are our neighbors. Those could be our parents, children, friends. And that is the whole goal.”
But the Somerville proposal moved forward anyway – slowly – during the pandemic, due in part to ongoing supply chain issues.
Somerville officials recently appropriated another $170,000 for the safe consumption site, adding to the $827,000 already approved for the project. Ballantyne said the city is putting together the Request for Proposals for a modular unit feasibility study, so they could get a mobile unit in place while exploring more long-term options like acquiring land or renovating buildings.
Gov. Maura Healey is a friendlier audience for safe consumption proposals in the Bay State, saying throughout her campaign that it should be left up to cities and towns. Safe consumption pilots are once again before Beacon Hill. Federally, the Biden administration is signaling an openness to allow such sites to operate.
“We are trying to be as current as possible on the legal information,” Ballantyne said. The city is watching federal response to the two New York City sites and Rhode Island’s recent legalization of safe consumption sites, “trying to be very thoughtful, very deliberate, making sure that we’re current and in the moment on how that might shift.”
Ballantyne and Evans say the sites are one of many related tools that can be used to mitigate the opioid crisis. If those struggling with addiction visit safe, centralized spaces, advocates say, they can be connected to wraparound services like rehabilitation or housing.“You create a safe space where people can be treated with dignity, where they know that you are there for their safety,” Evans said. “And then out of that, a whole bunch of things can happen. People get the ability to make some other choices about their life. They get resources and can connect to care so that if they want to go into treatment, they can.”
When InSight was going to open in 2003, Evans said, staff geared up for worst case scenarios that never took shape.