How Rhode Island became the first state to approve supervised drug injection centers

An idea that would once have been unthinkable in the General Assembly found broad support in the last week of the legislative session: to provide people who use illegal drugs with a safe and secure place to inject their drugs.

For years, this concept crashed into the rhetoric of the war on drugs. But the toll from the opioid epidemic – which lawmakers said killed nearly 400 people in Rhode Island last year – has sparked a reassessment. In making their case, some lawmakers cite how their own friends and relatives have died of overdoses.

State Representative Justine Caldwell (D-East Greenwich), for example. She said her 23-year-old cousin overdosed while on Block Island in 2017, leaving a cascade of emotional pain for two roommates who didn’t initially realize he overdosed.

“And his family, who are torn apart, and his sister, who is getting married this summer and he won’t be at her wedding,” Caldwell said, during a floor-long debate lasting over an hour. “So this is a bill that will protect Rhode Island families and is a big step in our prevention of substance abuse crises.”

The conventional argument against supervised drug injection centers is that they send a government-approved message in favor of the shooting. Representative Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence) is among those troubled by the concept.

“We are making rules, regulations, laws and parameters for our people to behave, behave,” Corvese said. “But yet, we’ll say, you want to hunt the dragon or shoot, here’s the place to do it.” We’ll protect you, we’ll have health workers there for you, and we’ll pay for it. ”

Rep. John Edwards (D-Tiverton), the bill’s sponsor in the House, responded.

“This bill will keep people alive,” he said. “This is the end result – people, who would otherwise die alone somewhere in our state, will stay alive.”

John Edwards said ignoring addiction increases body count, and it’s best to give users a safe, supervised place to shoot. Supporters say these sanctioned centers have made a positive difference in Canada and nearly a dozen other countries.

Upstairs in the House last week, Edwards said he expects Rhode Island to be home to one or maybe two injection sites. He said funding would come from non-governmental sources such as foundations. Users would be greeted by medical professionals when they brought their medications to a harm reduction center.

“They would be screened when they entered,” Edwards said. “They talk to them. If they wanted to, they could get their drugs tested, the amount of fentanyl tested – that’s it. And then they could go to a place in the facility, where they can inject their drugs or whatever they are used for, and they are monitored. They stay there until they can get up and go out on their own.

Legislation to create supervised drug injection centers was first introduced a few years ago by State Senator Josh Miller (D-Cranston).

This time around, the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved bills to create a two-year pilot program, and it is now law. Before an injection site can proceed in a particular community, it would require approval from the city or local city council.

In a letter expressing support in February, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza pledged to work with the state’s health ministry to implement the plan.

But Rep. Anastasia Williams (D-Providence) said it would be best to open a drug injection center in a suburb, where it shows drug addiction is not just an urban problem.

“When it’s in the urban cores it’s ‘the cracks and the junkies’,” she said, “but as soon as the white population started dying more frequently it became a pandemic of opioids and solutions began to be considered like this, but when people of color needed these same services, mom got the word, honey.

A federal appeals court earlier this year blocked a proposal for a municipal drug injection center in Philadelphia.

The supervised injection center’s legislative sponsors say they are confident it will move forward, in part due to changes in federal drug policy and the way Rhode Island is covered by another court of law. ‘call.

There was no immediate comment from the US attorney’s office on McKee’s signing of legislation for the drug injection center pilot program.

Asked about Attorney General Peter Neronha’s position on the concept, spokeswoman Kristy dosReis said: “There are addiction professionals and advocates who believe it is a concept that has of merit. The Attorney General reserves his judgment until this pilot program has run its course. “

The legislation requires the state’s health director and an advisory committee to create regulations by next March for planned injection sites.

A growing number of cities and states, including California and Somerville, Massachusetts, are pursuing injection site projects.

And the Biden administration supports the broader concept of harm reduction. The American Rescue Act includes $ 30 million for evidence-based harm reduction approaches – the first time the federal government has allocated money for such a purpose

Ian Donnis can be contacted at Follow him on twitter @IanDon. Register now here for his weekly RI politics and media newsletter.

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