BOSTON — A controversial approach to battling the opioid epidemic could get new life under the Biden administration. Many local leaders and recovery advocates believe 2021 could be the year safe injection sites open in Massachusetts.
Former President Donald Trump’s Justice Department fought hard, in court, to keep these clinics from opening across the country. Many hope new leadership could help reverse course, including those battling addiction.
“A year and a half ago, I think was my last overdose,” said Stephen Kelley, who’s battled addiction for years. He says he’s overdosed at least 20 times and eight times he was pronounced dead.
“Sometimes you’re just so grateful to open your eyes and see there’s still at least one person that still cares about you,” Kelley said.
While Kelley is still here, many of his friends are not.
“I want a world where the kid didn’t have to die because they got a little too (expletive) up and was in a bathroom stall and no one could find them,” he said.
Kelley believes safe injection sites, also known as supervised consumption sites, could change that.
A safe injection site is a clinic where people can use illegal drugs, under the supervision of a medical professional.
Boston 25 News visited this safe injection site in Montreal, Canada in 2018. The clinics offer clean supplies to drug users and peer support for those seeking treatment.
“In my view, these sites normalize intravenous drug use. It’s not clear to me why these sites would ever lead to a significant reduction in opioid addiction,” said U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling in a 2019 interview with Boston 25. Lelling’s office told 25 Investigates it’s an opinion he still holds today.
The Trump Justice Department was one of the biggest obstacles for safe injection sites opening anywhere in the country. In January, a federal appeals court blocked one from opening in Philadelphia. You can read the decision from the appellate court here.
But advocates, like Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton, hope the tide is turning.
“I think the Biden administration is actually going to believe in science, they’re actually going to follow the data,” Moulton told anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh.
Moulton, a Democrat from Salem, says he believes safe injection sites are a necessary tool to help Massachusetts battle the opioid epidemic.
“All the public health data shows that supervised injection sites actually reduce drug use. They’re not only healthier for drug users, they’re better for everybody’s public health.”
“Our hope was to have one open in 2020. With COVID we’ve been forced to recalibrate that timeline. We are moving forward to open one as soon as possible,” said Mayor Joe Curtatone of Somerville.
Curtatone, a Democrat, tells 25 Investigates he wants the first legal site to be in Somerville. But, stigma is still a hurdle.
“There are actually safe consumption sites right now. However, they’re in the basements of parent’s home, or an ATM in the vestibule or bathroom of a restaurant,” he said.
State data shows COVID-19 has made the opioid situation more dire.
After three straight years of decline, overdose deaths were up in Massachusetts through the first nine months of 2020, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
25 Investigates documented how the lack of addiction and recovery services during the pandemic sent people from across the state flocking to Boston’s so-called ‘methadone mile’ last summer.
Moulton said those scenes only underscore the need for these supervised consumption sites.
“It would get all those folks off the street and concentrate them in areas where you can actually have interventions to stop them from using drugs,” Moulton said. “Right now, it’s just a mess of their drug use is everywhere. Their dirty needles everywhere.”
And, Kelley says the drugs themselves are more dangerous than ever with fentanyl is being cut into everything. “Every single drug,” he said.
Just one of the reasons why Mayor Curtatone says he’s moving fast to open a safe injection site in his city.
“This is an important strategy and tool in our effort to, you know, save lives and reverse this opioid crisis and just overdose deaths in general.”
So where is President Joe Biden on safe injection sites? Biden’s campaign did not include them, explicitly, as an integral part of his objectives for tackling the epidemic.
25 Investigates contacted the Biden administration for more insight. We will update this story when we hear back.
Others in Congress are also pushing for these sites to become reality in Massachusetts and beyond.
Senator Ed Markey sent 25 Investigates this statement:
“To save lives and help stem the tide of overdose addiction and death, we need to meet people where they are at and employ all possible harm reduction strategies. That’s why I support safe injection and consumption sites. Every path to recovery is different, and this opioid epidemic requires bold and immediate solutions to ensure that people across Massachusetts and the country get the help they need. With President Biden leading the way, we will ensure that we provide effective prevention, treatment, and recovery services to all who need them.”