Despite Endorsement From Massachusetts Medical Society, Legislators Go Home For Summer Without Approving Supervised Injection Sites

Legislators folded at the chance to  establish a supervised injection site pilot program within a bill, following the strong condemnation of Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and U.S. Attorney Andrew E. Lelling at the end of this legislative session.

The supervised injection facility (SIF) idea was approved for further study by the Senate Ways and Means Committee on July 18 after Baker and Lelling criticized the concept endorsed by the Massachusetts Medical Society.

“The evidence is clear that sanctioning heroin injection facilities does not reduce overdose deaths,” Baker said in a statement prior to the vote, “and these facilities are not a responsible tool to combat the opioid epidemic.”

Lelling challenged the legality of a SIF in a statement saying, “I cannot envision any scenario in which sites that normalize intravenous use of heroin and fentanyl would be off limits to federal law enforcement efforts.”

The Massachusetts Medical Society’s (MMS) board of trustees established a task force to study the feasibility of a SIF in the Bay State following its 2016 annual meeting and has since agreed to advocate for a pilot site to be established.

Toronto’s website defines supervised injection services as “a hygienic environment for people to inject pre-obtained drugs under the supervision of trained staff” – staff that will provide counselling services and treatment options to help curb one’s addiction.

Australia and Canada are two countries that have legalized SIFs while the idea is being pondered throughout the United States where it remains illegal.

In a sit-down interview with local NPR station WBUR, Lelling went a step further to condemn harm reduction strategies and said he would go after those operating a SIF in the Bay State.

“There is no convincing evidence that I have seen that [SIFs] lead to a larger number of addicts seeking treatment to get away from the addiction, or that [SIFs] reduce the number of overdose deaths in a given community,” Lelling told WBUR. “I think what I would say is that if a [SIF] was to open in Massachusetts we would seriously consider prosecuting the people involved … they’re doing it knowing this is patently illegal under federal law.”

Lelling called SIFs “a terrible idea” and said he does not take studies done by proponents of the harm reduction model at face value. He said his office works closely with treatment options for those struggling with addiction and that those options should be the focus for curbing the heroin epidemic rather than SIF model.

“Intravenous drug use is something to be avoided at all costs and someone who is in the grips of that kind of addiction should be in a treatment facility, not a facility that facilitates continuing addiction,” he said. “Proponents of the harm reduction model tend to be people who at the end of the day simply want drug legalization, simply perceive intravenous drug use as a life choice. That’s not my view, that’s not the government’s view. I don’t think it’s the view of most of the public.”

Lelling did say he is all for the studying SIFs as an option for public health “to better figure out what is the actual impact of these [facilities].”

At the municipal level, Boston officials have also rallied against proposed SIFs in the Hub. At a contentious hearing last summer, city councilors voiced concern or outright opposition to the proposal, even with vocal support from doctors and advocates in attendance. In February, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has also voiced concerns about SIFs in a forum sponsored by the Washington Post, particularly that drug dealers would take advantage of facility users.

Jordan Frias

Jordan Frias is an editorial assistant at Boston Herald and a contributor of Spare Change News. He is vice president of the New England Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a graduate of Northeastern University's School of Journalism.

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