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Amid Growing Debate About Supervised Drug Consumption Sites, Mass. Poll Finds Narrow Support04:53
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In this Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015, photo, used heroin syringes are stored in a water bottle as Steve Monnin cleans a wooded area in Combs Park, in Hamilton, Ohio.  (John Minchillo/AP)
In this Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015, photo, used heroin syringes are stored in a water bottle as Steve Monnin cleans a wooded area in Combs Park, in Hamilton, Ohio. (John Minchillo/AP)

Exactly half of Massachusetts residents support the idea of opening supervised consumption sites in the state. A WBUR poll found 43% oppose such clinics, where drug use is monitored to prevent or reverse an overdose. And 8% of 660 adults (topline resultscrosstabs) declined to respond or were undecided.

Supervised consumption of illegal drugs is one of the most controversial proposals for combating the opioid epidemic. There are currently no such clinics in the United States, although several major cities are pushing to open at least one. A state commission has recommended opening one or more. U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling says doing so would violate federal drug laws and he'd take steps to shut them down.

Some of the 50% of residents who support the idea say it’s time to put saving lives ahead of drug laws. No one has died after an overdose inside one of the supervised injection sites that are open in Canada.

"The opioid epidemic is a public health crisis and we need to take action," says Rebecca Arellano, 31, of Brighton. "Places like injection sites, where it [drug use] is monitored by a physician is the next step in moving Massachusetts forward."

The safety argument doesn't persuade Robert Araujo, 39, of North Dartmouth, because he doesn't think the vast majority of drug users will frequent the sites.

"It’s going to be a waste of resources, a waste of money and a waste of time because they’re not going to, won’t travel to these safe sites," says Araujo. "For them to say, 'hey, I gotta catch an Uber to go across town to go inject my heroin,' it’s not going to happen."

Angela Kelley, 50, who lives in Dorchester, says she looks at supervised consumption sites along racial lines. Kelley says nothing like this was proposed during the crack epidemic that ravaged the black community.

"Now that it [the opioid epidemic] is affecting more white people," says Kelley. "Now we want to coddle them, we want to hold their hand. No, that's not right."

There are stark differences of opinion on supervised consumption sites along party lines. The majority those who oppose the sites are registered Republicans — 75%. And the majority of those who support them are Democrats, at 68%. Residents between 30 and 60 are slightly more opposed than residents who are under 30 or over 60.  Men (50%) and women (49%) are evenly split on the idea.

There’s also a near-even divide among the 57% of poll respondents who say they know someone with opioid addiction. David Morse, 32, of Walpole, says he's watched friends and acquaintances struggle. He doesn’t think they would benefit from supervised consumption sites.

"I think it would disincentivize somebody from trying to seek help or you know, curtail their addiction," Morse says, "and may just add to the problem."

Marlborough resident Rufaro Gomwe, 33, says he sees these clinics as a source of help, a possible path to treatment.

"It’s not that we’re just saying this is a place where you can use your opioids," says Gomwe, "but also providing the services for those people who are looking to go into a recovery program."

That’s the key question for some poll respondents: Does supervised consumption enable drug users or lead them into treatment? Some residents say their opinion hinges on the answer.

Michelle Wilmot, 47, from Dracut, listed herself as strongly opposed, "but if you give them [drug users] a safe place to do it under supervision to wean them off, then I am all for it. I will spend every penny we have to do it."

Joann Pena, 60, from Dalton, listed herself at the opposite end of the opinion spectrum, but she and Wilmot mention similar stipulations.

"I agree strongly on it [supervised consumption] for somebody that’s trying to clean themselves up and they relapse, but they’re trying," says Pena. "But somebody that doesn’t try, why even have it? Why even let them in there?"

A few studies make the link between supervised consumption sites and treatment. One based on a clinic in Vancouver, Canada, found that clients were 33% more likely to enter treatment than other drug users. Another says that 11.2% of drug users who used a supervised consumption clinic entered a detox program within that clinic during a two-year period.

There are 39 supervised consumption clinics in Canada and 11 applications under review. Rob Boyd directs the Oasis Program,  a package of services for drug users that includes supervised consumption. It's part of the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre in Ottawa.

In a recent nine-month period, Boyd says there were 64 referrals to substance use services and counseling, 17 into detox and 15 into an opiate withdrawal program that offers methadone or buprenorphine.

Boyd acknowledges those numbers are small. His staff made more than 1,300 referrals for everything from food and housing assistance to primary and specialty care. Boyd says the route to treatment often starts with basic services.

"You really need to demonstrate to folks that you’re accepting them as they are when they come in and beginning to work on their needs on their own terms," Boyd says. "Then you continue to build that relationship with them over time."

In Massachusetts, state Sen. Cindy Friedman of Arlington and several colleagues are drafting legislation based on the commission recommendation to create one or more supervised consumption pilots.

"We’ve got to try everything we can to try to help these people stay alive and get treatment," Friedman says. "We should be seeing if it will work here."

Massachusetts residents in the WBUR poll may be nearly divided about supervised consumption sites, but they are united on the need for more action on opioid addiction, with 92% saying it's a major problem or crisis in the state.

The live telephone poll was conducted by the MassINC Polling Group from Thursday through Monday. It has a margin of error of 3.8%.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified the respondents to this poll as voters, not residents. We regret the error.

This segment aired on May 17, 2019.

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Martha Bebinger Twitter Reporter
Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.

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