Safe Consumption Sites Are Coming to New England This Year

Safe consumption sites allow people to use illegal drugs like heroin in a safe, controlled environment

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Neighboring states are turning to safe consumption sites to lessen the burden on health care systems as overdose deaths have surged during the COVID-19 pandemic.

NBC10 Boston traveled to Rhode Island where a new law was recently passed that will allow people to use illegal drugs like heroin in a safe environment and out of the public eye.

Lisa Peterson gave us a tour of VICTA in Providence. They provide a number of different services for people struggling with substance use.

"We do basic ambulatory urgent care type things here. We can check a blood pressure, we can do a strep test, we can bandage a wound, et cetera," said Peterson.

Later this year, VICTA is hoping to add a new service in Providence -- a safe consumption site.

"We recognize that people who want sobriety or recovery one day may not want it the next day, and we think that it's important to help keep people alive so that they can live their best lives in recovery, whatever that means for them," she said.

Lawmakers are taking up legislation Monday that would allow safe drug use sites to open in Massachusetts.

In October of 2021, Rhode Island Governor Daniel McKee signed into law the nation’s first bill that would allow people to use illegal drugs in a controlled environment. 

Peterson is hopeful that VICTA will be one of the first organizations to open a remote harm reduction site in the state.

"There's a lot of benefits. The first is that it will save lives," said Peterson.

According to the latest numbers, 361 people died of drug overdoses last year in Rhode Island.

"We are not in a great place right now. With the COVID 19 pandemic, we've seen unprecedented increases in overdose rates," said Brandon Marshall, an associate professor at Brown University that studies overdose prevention and harm reduction.

He also studied safe injection sites firsthand in Vancouver, Canada to see how they can immediately impact a community.

"A study I did way back in 2011 showed that overdose mortality at a community level went down by 35% after this facility was opened,” Marshall said.

More than 150 unhoused people were moved into transitional housing from Boston's Mass. and Cass encampment, Mayor Michelle Wu said, but she cautioned that homelessness is solved.

Jim Stewart took a walk with us down near the engagement center on Atkinson St in Boston in the are known as "Mass and Cass." We witnessed firsthand people openly injecting drugs on the side of the street.

"So clearly, there's a need for a service like safe consumption. There's absolutely no good way for people to inject safely if they have to do it out on the street," Stewart said.

Stewart is part of an advocacy group called Safe Injection For Massachusetts Now which has been trying to get safe consumption sites in the Bay state since 2016.

"This is an obvious place where it needs to be available because this is where the people are. If we want to save lives and lift people up, this is where we have to start," said Stewart.

New York City opened two overdose prevention sites (also called safe injection sites) where drug users have access to clean supplies and staff nearby who can administer life-saving care in case of an overdose. The centers are a way for the city to address the opioid crisis and save lives, NBC New York's Kay Angrum explains.

On Nov. 30, New York City opened two safe injection sites, becoming the first in the nation to do so. OnPoint which runs the sites says since they’ve opened, they’ve prevented 86 overdoses.

"And that reduces the burden on our health care system on unnecessary emergency department visits due to overdose, which is so critical now, even more so as we continue to experience this omicron wave," said Marshall.

He points to recent a study from the Clinical and Economic Review that showed one safe injection site would save the city of Boston $4 million annually through averted healthcare costs.

"When you're an addict, you don't care. All you care about, is your next fix," said Michelle, a drug user we met outside the Project Weber Renew outreach center in Providence.

Program manager Ashley Perry was helping Michelle get into treatment.

Perry brought us inside to show us some of the clean needle supplies and Narcan they hand out daily.

"So one of the things that we teach people along with giving them the naloxone on is don't use alone," she said.

A statewide public education campaign is grabbing attention and spreading a potentially life-saving message in Vermont, where fatal drug overdoses have risen throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

Perry says for people struggling with addiction these are lifesaving supplies. She believes safe injection sites will save even more.

"It's not enough to save people's lives. It's still not enough. Like I've said, I've narcanned a lot of people, but I've also lost a lot of people, not just people that I work with, but people who are close to me. So this will be a game-changer," said Perry.

Rhode Island has until March to finalize rules and regulations for safe consumption sites. Then providers will then be allowed to apply to open a site under a two-year pilot program. Which could mean the first safe consumption site in New England could be open in early spring this year.

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