Prosecution threat leaves Baker cool to drug injection sites

Boston Statehouse
needle

Gov. Charlie Baker forcefully rejected the idea Wednesday that Massachusetts should experiment with safe drug injection sites, dismissing it as a waste of time after U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling has made clear he would prosecute any supervised drug use facility.

The governor’s position contradicts the recommendation of a special commission led by his Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders. That panel agreed Tuesday that Massachusetts should consider a pilot program.

“I’m not going to stand around and wait for something that can’t happen,” Baker said Wednesday after repeatedly being asked if he would consider the idea. “I would rather focus on the stuff that can.”

Baker noted that Lelling has only published one op/ed since taking over as the top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts and it was in the Boston Globe to make clear that his office would not turn a blind eye to safe injection sites as it has toward retail marijuana shops.

“The U.S. attorney here has made absolutely crystal clear that he will prosecute anyone who tries to open up a safe injection site in Massachusetts,” Baker said. “They’re illegal under federal law.”

The Harm Reduction Commission decided Tuesday that it’s final report to the Legislature would include a recommendation that the lawmakers consider a pilot program of “one or more” safe injection sites as another tool to prevent opioid overdose deaths.

Safe injection sites have been used in places like Canada as places where individuals can use drugs under the watch of medical professionals without risk of arrest, and the commission agreed it could be a viable way to reduce harm and should be explored despite concerns about legality.

“I personally believe this is such a crisis and such an emergency that we need to do everything we can to keep people safe,” said Sen. Cindy Friedman, a member of the commission and co-chair of the Legislature’s Health Care Financing Committee.

Given the governor’s position, the question now is whether the Legislature will advance a pilot program while mindful that it could run into a veto from Baker.

Baker said Massachusetts is already doing a lot to reduce overdoses by making Narcan, an overdose reversal drug, readily available to law enforcement and first responders and by opening needle exchanges around the state.

“I would like to focus on the stuff that we can do now, which is a long list of pretty significant and successful initiatives. Chasing something that’s not legal under federal law just doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Baker said.

Pressed on the Harm Reduction Commission’s final report, Baker said he would read it, but did not seem open to changing his mind. “We can’t do it. It’s against the law,” he repeated.

Sudders on Tuesday said the Harm Reduction Commission was a “legislatively controlled commission,” and indicated that she had not spoken to Baker about the report’s conclusions.

“I’ll be briefing him unless he reads it in the papers,” she said.

Last week, Sudders conceded safe injection sites could be “an important part of harm reduction, it does save lives,” but also said it would be a “hard sell” because of the legal issues.

Lelling’s office on Tuesday reiterated the prosecutor’s position. Spokeswoman Christina Sterling said that “any injection site would be met with federal enforcement.”

One test of the legality of safe injection sites could be coming in Pennsylvania where federal prosecutors have filed a civil lawsuit against a proposed site in Philadelphia.

“Ultimately, this could come down to somebody being criminally charged in a case and it could go to a jury of 12 people who will hear this evidence and they will decide whether or not these safe consumption sites violate the Controlled Substances Act,” Rep. Jeff Roy said this week. “There’s a long way to go.”

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