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Somerville Delays Plan To Open First Supervised Drug Use Clinic In Massachusetts

In this 2018 photo, a model of a supervised injection site is seen in San Francisco. The model is an example of a supervised, indoor location where intravenous drug users can consume drugs in safer conditions and access treatment and recovery services. (Eric Risberg/AP)
In this 2018 photo, a model of a supervised injection site is seen in San Francisco. The model is an example of a supervised, indoor location where intravenous drug users can consume drugs in safer conditions and access treatment and recovery services. (Eric Risberg/AP)

The city of Somerville says COVID has delayed efforts to establish the first medically supervised site for drug use in Massachusetts. Somerville had pledged to open a so-called supervised consumption site by the end of 2020 but is revising that to mid-2021.

U.S. Attorneys in Massachusetts and out of Washington, D.C., say any such operation would be violating federal laws and anyone involved with the use of illegal drugs would be prosecuted.

But local health officials in Somerville and at least a half dozen other cities around the country say research out of Canada and other countries where supervised consumption sites are legal prove they save lives by reversing overdoses and reducing infections spread through shared needles.

“There’s still a need,” says Somerville Health and Human Services director Doug Kress. “We are still losing people to overdose. To have safe places for their consumption is one of those methodologies we can use to save a life.”

Kress says monthly planning meetings were cancelled for four months as the coronavirus surged this spring but resumed in July. He says the city just passed a budget that includes $20,000 to hire a consultant to help advance the project.

There are more than three dozen such facilities in Canada but none in the U.S. A high profile effort to offer supervised drug use clinics in Philadelphia has not been able to find a site. Legislation that would ease some state legal barriers in Massachusetts is still pending but was not taken up during formal sessions earlier this year.

It’s not clear if the U.S. Justice Department position on supervised consumption would change if Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden wins in November. In 1986, he co-sponsored the “crack-house statute” which has been used to argue that consumption sites are illegal. Biden did not respond to a question about his position on these supervised or safe consumption clinics during the primary.

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

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