BOSTON, Mass. (SHNS)–A Senate committee chair seemed vexed over the commonwealth’s authority to buck federal law and legalize drug consumption sites during a hearing Monday, as health care providers and local officials insisted that pending legislation would provide them with crucial protections as they aim to implement a new approach to curbing Massachusetts’s worsening opioid epidemic.
Municipalities would be permitted to open so-called overdose prevention centers, also known as supervised injection sites, through a 10-year-pilot program under proposals from Reps. Dylan Fernandes and Marjorie Decker and Sen. Julian Cyr (H 1981 / S 1242).
Massachusetts logged 2,357 confirmed and estimated fatal opioid-related overdoses last year, a record high that disproportionately affected non-Hispanic Black residents.
Sen. John Velis, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery, signaled that policymakers are still awaiting guidance about the legality of those facilities from the federal government, amid an ongoing legal battle between the Department of Justice and a nonprofit looking to open a supervised injection site in Philadelphia.
“Again, raising that question about the legal landscape if we go forward with this, where is the federal government?” Velis said. “If it sounds like I’m frustrated, I am.” But Velis also acknowledged New York City has opened a supervised injection site, and he implored colleagues at the start of the hearing to consider harm reduction strategies that have already been implemented. The first such facility in Rhode Island is slated to open in Providence early 2024 after the state legalized the centers in 2020, according to The Public’s Radio.
In Massachusetts, a state commission in 2019 recommended the commonwealth should pilot “one or more supervised consumption sites,” though it warned the approach poses legal risks.
Velis said he’s spent a “lot of time” considering the so-called federal crackhouse statute, which is at issue in the Philadelphia case and makes it illegal for facilities to store, use or sell controlled substances, according to WHYY.
Gavi Wolfe, legislative director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, told the News Service the case is limited to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, meaning an eventual ruling would not affect the commonwealth. “The First Circuit hasn’t addressed it because we haven’t had the opportunity, but if we pass legislation on the state level, we are giving state guidance saying this is in fact lawful,” Wolfe said.
Decker, who previously chaired the committee, said Massachusetts is on “strong legal grounds” to advance these proposals, which she noted had momentum before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “I think there’s just more bandwidth, quite honestly, and you have committee chairs who are also more familiar with this,” Decker told the News Service when asked what could make the difference in advancing the bills this session. “Other states are moving forward, and every day that we wait is another multiple lives that we lose.”
Under the proposals, people with substance use addiction could take pre-obtained drugs at the centers while being supervised by trained staff who could help prevent the spread of infectious diseases like HIV, respond to potential overdoses, provide access to naloxone, and connect participants to treatment or other services. The bills also contain civil and criminal protections for clinical staff, participants and facility owners.
Those drug use protections are similar to the safeguards passed by the Legislature last year to protect abortion care providers and out-of-state patients, Andrea Pessolano, senior manager of state government advocacy at Boston Medical Center, said at Monday’s hearing. Supervised consumption sites could be subject to lawsuits without the liability protections contained in the legislation, she said.
Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne said the legislation would reduce “serious legal risks” for the city, as officials there move forward with their plan to open a supervised drug consumption site. Clients who use the future center could face criminal prosecution, while medical providers could jeopardize their professional licenses, Ballantyne said at the hearing. “We need the state to let us help protect our residents,” she said. “We know that supervised consumption sites save lives, and that we urgently need new tools to help prevent overdose.”
There have been zero overdoses at the roughly 200 supervised consumption sites operating in 14 countries, according to Massachusetts for Overdose Prevention Centers, a coalition of more than 30 hospitals, public health advocacy groups, public safety groups and other organizations that support the proposals on Beacon Hill. A poll released by the coalition last week found that 70 percent of Massachusetts voters surveyed also support the legislation.
Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan said the Legislature has been “stuck in a state of indecision” about supervised consumption sites. He asked lawmakers to have the “courage to pass this legislation,” as he also reminded them about the Constitution’s limits on federal and state courts to hear certain cases.
“For over 220 years, local and state governments have controlled public health and this is a public health crisis. So I think that Massachusetts, under the 11th Amendment, has the opportunity to bring this forward,” Sullivan told lawmakers. “So legalize it, and then fight it in federal court and even before the Supreme Judicial Court. We have a great attorney general’s office — they defend our statutes all the time.”