BOSTON (STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE) – The “unorthodox” idea of providing a sanctioned space for illegal intravenous drug use deserves further study, Gov. Charlie Baker told reporters on Monday afternoon, while House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he would need a “very convincing argument” to support the proposal.
On Saturday the Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS) adopted a policy supporting a state-directed safe injection site pilot, which would be the first of its kind in the country. The society found links between safe injection sites and fewer life-threatening overdoses in other countries.
“I’m not familiar with this idea. It’s certainly something obviously we’ll take a look at because we need as many ideas as we possibly can to deal with this problem,” the governor told reporters after meeting with legislative leaders. Asked if the idea made him uncomfortable, Baker said, “Let’s put it this way: It’s pretty unorthodox, but I’d like to see why they came to this conclusion, and read about it.”
Heroin and opioids have continued to cut a destructive swath through the population. Opioid overdoses killed at least 1,465 people in Massachusetts in 2016, according to the Department of Public Health.
DeLeo was skeptical of the idea but said he would like to give the Massachusetts Medical Society a chance to explain it to him.
“I think it’s counter-intuitive to what we would think should be done,” DeLeo told reporters on Monday. He said, “I think I’d really have to hear a very convincing argument to convince me, but again, if they have that convincing argument then I’m open to it.”
Baker and the Legislature have created new laws improving access to addiction therapy, mandating medical training about the drugs and placing limits on first-time prescriptions of narcotic painkillers – legal medicine that can be a gateway to addiction.
“Since the medical community had a lot to do with getting us into this crisis of opioid addiction nationally – let’s never forget, we consume 80 percent of the world’s opioids even though we represent 5 percent of the world’s population – I do appreciate the decision made by the medical society to step into this discussion. They’ve been helpful,” Baker said.
The medical society said safe injection sites – where sterile equipment is supplied but staffers do not assist in the drug abuse – have “been associated with declines in serious illness and disease, including HIV and hepatitis C.”
The governor said he has aimed to be “very aggressive about supporting” people to receive treatment for addiction and has tried to stop people from becoming addicted.
“My goal is to try to keep people from getting addicted in the first place, which the medical community has an enormous role to play in,” Baker said.
At its annual meeting Saturday, the MMS membership adopted a policy that calls for “a pilot supervised injection facility program in the state, to be under the direction and oversight of the state” as well as wider use of naloxone and more treatment for substance use disorder. The policy calls for the organization to lobby for a federal exemption and state legislation to allow such a facility.
“It’s counterintuitive that you would let someone inject in front of you unless you’re really, really terrified they’re going to die,” said Dr. Barbara Herbert, president of the Massachusetts Society of Addiction Medicine. “We’re talking about people who are going to use, and we’re talking about trying to create a space to keep people alive and maybe inject a little hope.”