By Seth Daniel
A major showdown over safe injection facilities (SIFs) for opiate users took place on Beacon Hill this week, with a hearing on a proposed bill that would potentially allow such facilities in Massachusetts.
However, though many in the medical community are in favor – including prominent physicians in Charlestown like Dr. Mark Eisenberg, local leaders still aren’t exactly convinced.
The State House hearing took place on Wednesday, Sept. 6, too late for Patriot-Bridge deadline.
On Tuesday night, a public meeting in Boston, Mayor Martin Walsh officially announced he would oppose the bill – which is put forth by Sen. William Brownsberger, who lives in Belmont but represents areas of Boston like the Back Bay.
“I had a couple firefighters who went to Vancouver to look at the facility there, actually both of them in long-term recovery, and they both said to me there’s no way on Earth we want to bring that kind of facility to Boston,” he said. “I’m not a heroin addict, I’m an alcoholic that’s sober, but having a safe place to inject heroin is not a good move. People may disagree with me and say psychologically it’s a good move. I don’t think it’s a good move. I think we need to find better ways to get people treatment – ways to get people off heroin and not encouraging them to go to a safe space to shoot heroin… That’s my concern. The bill at the Legislature I will be opposing along with some other city councilors over the course of the next couple of weeks.”
Others standing against the bill include Councilors Michael Flaherty, Frank Baker, and Tim McCarthy.
Brownsberger’s bill came following a vote of the Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS) last year that called for a task force to begin looking at how to site a Safe Injection Facility (SIF) in the state.
State Rep. Dan Ryan, whose committee hosted this week’s SIF hearing on Brownsberger’s bill, said he wasn’t convinced that giving people the tools to use heroin was a good idea.
He said his opinion came out of many years of doing harm reduction in Charlestown with the Charlestown Coalition. He said some years ago, he agreed to the controversial needle exchange program to prevent dirty needle usage, but he said he always has hesitations.
“Our committee is in the very early stages of looking at safe injections sites as a harm reduction tool for fighting the heroin epidemic,” he said. “There are far more questions than answers as to the validity to this program. I think we all want to save the lives of people in the throes of addiction. But giving an addict the means in which to inject needs to be a last resort not an issue of convenience.”
On Tuesday, Walsh said he thinks a SIF might encourage people who are on the bubble of using heroin.
“What that means is people who might be on the bubble of shooting heroin, and may not be shooting heroin today, might think they’re going to a safe space to shoot heroin and it’s okay to shoot it there,” he said. “I think we need to try other ways. The epidemic we have in the city now is not new. We’ve had this epidemic for 15 years, but they just started calling it an epidemic a couple of years ago. It was an epidemic 15 or 20 years ago. I think there are better ways of dealing with the issue of addiction than having safe sites.”
He said he joked with Sen. Brownsberger about his bill, saying that maybe they should put the first SIF in Belmont.
“Sen. Brownsberger is a friend, but what I said to him was the first facility, why not propose it for Belmont and if they like it there, we’ll take it in Boston,” he said jokingly.