Commission torn over supervised injection sites

As feds loom in background, Walsh favors them, Sudders wary

MEMBERS OF A STATE COMMISSION see some theoretical benefits from establishing supervised drug injection sites, but when it comes to the feasibility of actually establishing such programs, consensus was harder to find.

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, who chairs the Harm Reduction Commission, was the most vocal skeptic at a meeting Thursday, but even she agreed that supervised drug consumption sites are a tool that has had beneficial effects when used in other countries.

“There’s no question that in 11 countries that have implemented supervised consumption sites, safe consumption sites, that there have been no deaths within the sites,” Sudders said after Thursday’s meeting.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said he also thought the commission would wind up identifying such sites as a harm reduction tool, and he wants a plan to “take another step towards safe consumption sites, on how we do it.”

One of the many impediments to establishing such a program anywhere in Massachusetts is that they are illegal under federal law, according to US Attorney Andrew Lelling, who has warned that he intends to enforce those laws.

“There are lots of barriers that the Commonwealth needs to consider,” Sudders said. She also suggested that federal law would likely not change to allow such programs anytime in the foreseeable future.

“I heard what a US attorney said,” Sudders said to explain some of her reasoning during Thursday’s meeting.

“And they’ve said the same thing about cannabis,” responded Leo Beletsky, a law and health sciences professor at Northeastern University who sits on the 15-member commission.

“But they then backed off, right?” Sudders replied.

“And they might back off in this case, too,” Beletsky said. “You’re basing a public policy discussion around what someone said. That’s not what we’re here for.”

The Harm Reduction Commission sprang out of a 2018 law that extended substance abuse treatment into prisons and authorizes other steps to give society a helping hand in dealing with the public health crisis of opioid addiction.

Around 2,000 people have died in each of the past three years of opioid overdoses in Massachusetts, though those deaths have declined from a high of 2,099 in 2016.

Marylou Sudders, Massachusetts secretary of Health and Human Services

Walsh, who has come around to the idea of supervised drug consumption sites after visiting several locations in Toronto and Montreal, said Boston might need to go to court to enact the policy.

“We can try a pilot, but we’re going to have to go to the United States Supreme Court,” Walsh said during the meeting. Short of a supervised injection site, Boston has established a drop-in center near one of the hardest hit areas in the city for drug abuse, where people can find a meal, a shower, and some space indoors.

The real action will happen next Tuesday when the commission will receive a copy of a final report. If Thursday’s meeting is any indication, there could be substantial disagreement among the commission members about how beneficial the sites might be and how feasible it would be to clear the legal and other hurdles.

Gov. Charlie Baker has been cool to the idea of creating places where people can use illegal narcotics under the supervision of staff

The commission is tasked with determining the feasibility of operating supervised drug-use sites, weighing the risks and benefits of the idea, identifying legal hurdles, and making other determinations in a report that will be given to state lawmakers.