Somerville has approved most of the money needed for a mobile clinic where people using drugs could be monitored and revived if they overdose.
In the coming weeks, the city council is expected to vote on a budget proposal from Mayor Katjana Ballantyne that includes $10,000 for consultants to help get the project off the ground. The council also will consider what is expected to be the final piece of funding needed to purchase a mobile unit to house the clinic.
Ballantyne said she’s considering a range of sources to fund operating costs for what would be the first such facility in Massachusetts
Supervised consumption sites, or overdose prevention clinics, are a controversial strategy, but many addiction experts say they are needed as fentanyl, which can shut off breathing in seconds, continues to dominate the drug supply.
“The data has shown that these sites can save lives,” Ballantyne said in a statement.
It’s been nearly four years since Ballantyne’s predecessor pledged the city would open a supervised consumption site. Some advocates are frustrated that progress has not come sooner. Ballantyne said the high stakes “demand that we move thoughtfully, deliberately and in collaboration with key stakeholders.”
Somerville is moving forward with plans for the clinic despite uncertainty about its legal status, who would run it and where the clinic would be located. Some opponents also have raised concerns that a supervised consumption site could attract more people who use drugs to the city.
A report commissioned by the city suggested city-owned parking lots in East Somerville and Davis Square could accommodate a trailer — the easiest and fastest way to open a clinic, the report said.
There are additional obstacles to opening a supervised consumption site. Clinic staff could face federal charges if they monitor illegal drug use. They could also lose their state medical licenses.
Health care organizations could put their federal funding at risk if they staff a supervised consumption clinic. Many health systems are waiting to see if the Biden administration reaches an operating agreement with an organization in Philadelphia that wants to open an overdose prevention site in that city.
The federal government has so far declined to take action against two overdose prevention centers that opened in New York City in November, 2021. Rhode Island expects to open a program in early 2024. Minnesota’s legislature this year passed a law that will allow supervised consumption sites.
In Massachusetts, some city leaders in Cambridge and Worcester are urging colleagues to consider opening supervised consumption sites. Four years ago a state task force recommended piloting this approach. Legislation that would create a pilot program is currently pending on Beacon Hill.
State Sen. Julian Cyr, who has sponsored a similar bill, said he’s optimistic the state will not interfere when Somerville opens a clinic designed to prevent deaths after an overdose.
“I think they can do it today,” said Cyr. “Their biggest hurdle is around liability for the licensed staff and others who are involved. But I don’t think the current state administration would bring them to court.”