Governor Baker Holding the Fort Against Clean-Needle Drug Injection Sites in Massachusetts

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Governor Charlie Baker continues to oppose so-called safe injection sites for drug addicts because they’re illegal under federal law and he sees no hard evidence that that they work.

The governor is in a decided minority of state officials in Massachusetts who have commented on the issue, bucking a recommendation earlier this month by a panel he appointed last year.

But Baker this week challenged whether the state’s Harm Reduction Commission proved its case.

“With respect to safe injection sites generally, I’d say the following:  The first thing I did when I saw that harm reduction report was I called several members of the commission and I said, ‘Where’s the longitudinal data here around how many people got into treatment, who used these facilities, how many people stopped using drugs and got better, how long had people been going here? You, know, where’s the stuff that shows me something that implies that there’s a pathway that implies that there’s a pathway here to getting out from under the awful and terrible consequences of addiction?’ And the answer I got was there is no data on that, because the whole thing is completely anonymous,” Baker said Thursday, March 21 during an appearance on Boston Public Radio on WGHB FM 89.7.

Supporters of safe injection sites say they offer drug addicts a chance to take heroin and other opioids in a clean, controlled environment, where medical personnel can attend to them if they overdose or have other medical problems. The commission studied sites in Canada where officials said such sites are working. They note that no drug addicts have died at the sites.

Marylou Sudders, the Baker administration’s secretary of health and human services and the chairman of the Harm Reduction Commission, said February 21 that “safe consumption sites are an important potential harm reduction tool that people need to consider,” according to State House News Service.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who used to oppose drug injection sites, has sounded more open to them recently, after visiting sites in Montreal and Toronto in January. He also served on the Harm Reduction Commission, which recommended drug injection sites in its March 1 report:

“Supervised consumption sites are an effective harm reduction tool in the countries where they have been implemented. These sites keep people who use drugs alive and help reduce the public health risks of disease transmission. These sites can also provide a safe space where people may receive harm reduction materials and linkages to other services. A pilot program of one or more supervised consumption sites should be part of the Commonwealth’s efforts to combat the opioid crisis.”

But critics say injection sites don’t help addicts kick their addiction, and may make it worse.

Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling wrote an op-ed column in January saying his office would prosecute injection sites under federal law. He also criticized the concept.

“Injection sites normalize intravenous drug abuse, encourage a horrible addiction, and let down the people who suffer from it. Promoters of these sites offer addicts little but failure — medical safety at the time of injection but, overall, mere complicity in a nightmarish cycle of addiction leading to death. Perhaps not when the addict shoots up under the careful eye of a medical professional, but one of the hundreds of other times she shoots up somewhere else,” Lelling wrote in The Boston Globe.

On Thursday, Baker cited Lelling’s repeated statements that he would prosecute safe injection sites under federal law as reason enough not to pursue them.

“With respect to the safe injection site question, you know, I start with, because it’s an important point, the fact that the U.S. Attorney has written one op-ed since he became U.S. Attorney, and it was a very strongly worded, unqualified statement that if people try to open up a safe injection site in Massachusetts, he will prosecute them. They will be arrested and they will be prosecuted. I think that puts, that puts the onus on us to chase alternatives that we can actually implement. And this is one that, at least for the time being, is just going to be a non-starter,” Baker said during the radio interview.

But under questioning by host Jim Braude, who sounded impressed with injection sites in Canada, Baker mentioned substantive objections, as well, questioning whether there’s any proof they help drug addicts in the long run.

“I think the goal here should be harm reduction. And harm reduction defined, as I think about it, means doing a better job of helping people keep from getting addicted in the first place,” Baker said. “Which as a nation, we failed miserably at for 20 years.”

As for opioid addicts, Baker said the state needs to make available “more treatment options and treatment options that work.”

“I talk to people all the time, who say to me — who are dealing with this right now, either themselves or on behalf a family member — who say opening up something that’s not a path to treatment, that doesn’t require somebody to engage in any significant way around their health generally, is not a good idea,” Baker said.

Braude cited a September 2018 NOVA story on PBS about an injection site in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada that provides clean needles, tests drugs for dangerous fentanyl before addicts shoot up, and provides supervision of injections. The story also shows a clinic that provides heroin to addicts. The story highlights officials associated with the programs and drug addicts, all of whom praise it.

But Baker remained unconvinced, returning to the Massachusetts Harm Reduction Commission report dated March 1.

“I looked through that report for something that would tell me how this was going to help people get better. And there’s nothing in it,” Baker said.

Baker got support from Jim Lyons, the chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party.

“These sites are the equivalent of waving the white flag. This sends the absolute wrong message to everyone fighting this epidemic,” Lyons said in a written statement Thursday. “… Supervised drug injection sites only serve to prolong the misery of the addicted.”

While public officials in Massachusetts seem to be tilting pro-injection sites, it so far doesn’t appear to be an issue Democrats want to press with Baker. The Massachusetts Democratic Party did not issue a statement after Baker’s comments Thursday.