Safe Injection Discussion Faces Skepticism

On a small table in the auditorium of the Charlestown MGH Health Center was a syringe.

Next to it were other materials, such as a tourniquet and cotton balls and other supplies necessary to shoot up intravenous drugs. It was a mock safe consumption site that was set up with great controversy and conversation last week at the health center.

The Charlestown health center brought the Mock Supervised Injection Facility (SIF) to spark a conversation in the community about a new tool being discussed citywide to help keep those who are addicted alive and free from fatal overdose. The idea would be to allow people to come into a place like the health center to inject drugs where they would be supervised and safe after consumption.

The mock SIF was open for two days for members of the community to look at, get information on, and think about. There was also a forum last Thursday night to hear some of the positives about the harm-reduction tool, which is illegal in the United States but utilized across Canada.

“It was a mix of people coming in very against it, people coming in very supportive of it, and a lot of people in between,” said Tehya Johnson, of SIF Now, and also a student at the MGH Institute in the Navy Yard. “Even those with opposing viewpoints, though, were open to hearing the benefits to the community and services it would give access to.”

She stressed that they don’t provide drugs, and they don’t administer drugs, but only offer high-level, medical supervision.

Several elected officials and law enforcement from across the state made their way to the Mock SIF, including staff members from the offices of state legislators and even a police chief from the South Shore.

State Rep. Dan Ryan said he appreciated the conversation, but feels such things are a long way away.

“I appreciate MGH Health Centers willingness to be out front on this issue,” he said. “Last week’s mock (SIF) was another good opportunity for me to get a better understanding of the concept. I do believe we are a long way from these services becoming a reality in Massachusetts. But, I’m open to continued discussion. I think the important thing to remember, on all sides of the debate, is that the number one goal here is to get proper health services, including detox and recovery, to IV drug users. I’m not convinced that (SIF)’s are the best way to do that but I’m willing to listen and continue to learn.”

Councilor Lydia Edwards said she isn’t sure that a SIF is the right tool to treat addiction.

“I unfortunately never heard about the mock site until I read about it in the paper,” she said. “I am happy to engage in an informed discussion but I don’t think this was the right time, location or way to go about it. I am not convinced of the effectiveness or safe injection sites.”

Meanwhile, many of the providers and recovery specialists in the Town are moving to favor SIFs.

Shannon White of the Charlestown Coalition, and Michael ‘Smokey’ Cain, a recovery outreach worker, both said they had their reservations, but see it as the next tool needed to help get people into recovery.

“Even as someone who works in recovery and is in life-long recovery, I had doubts about Safe Consumption Sites,” said White. “I have changed my mind on that. After dealing with so many who have lost their lives, and also talking with parents who have lost two or three children, it said to me that we have to do everything we can to keep people alive…People have overdosed in that health center. The reason it wasn’t fatal was because there were in a medical facility where other people were around. By keeping people alive, we’ll be able to push treatment to them. There is no recovery option after a fatal overdose.”

Smokey Cain said his own son died of an overdose at the age of 24, and he often wonders if there had been a SIF, maybe he wouldn’t have died alone.

“The majority of fatal overdoses happen because the person is alone,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many people I know that died in the Dunkin’ Donuts bathroom. Too many to count…The doubts come from people who feel we are enabling or encouraging. We had the same concerns about medically assisted treatment. It was the same fight for needle exchanges and also for Narcan. The big push will be doctors getting behind this because it is a disease.”

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