“People say, ‘Why Somerville?'” Said Alderman Jesse Clingan, a longtime proponent of the site. “We’re brave enough to do that.”
Spurred on by renewed optimism for a changing political climate, proponents and city officials are campaigning to pursue a plan that Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone first announced in 2019. The city commissioned a feasibility study and held the first of several town hall discussions earlier this month, but it hasn’t picked a site or agency to carry out.
“Sometimes problems take time to mature. This topic feels ripe, ”said Carl Sciortino, member of the city’s working group on the project and executive vice president at Fenway Health.
The sense of urgency has increased, Sciortino said, as the number of overdose deaths reached the highest number ever in the country, and rose 5 percent last year in Massachusetts. There were 14 overdose deaths among Somerville residents in 2020, fewer than in 2019 but twice as many as in 2018.
At monitored consumption points – also known as safe injection points, overdose prevention centers and harm reduction centers – the participants bring in drugs purchased elsewhere and inject or inhale them at clean tables in the field of view of trained professionals who are ready to intervene in the event of an overdose. Drug users would have access to hygienic injection equipment and would be able to establish relationships with co-workers who can guide them to health care, including addiction treatment.
More than 120 such facilities operate outside of the United States, and studies have shown that they reduce overdose deaths without increasing neighborhood crime or litter. However, no sanctioned website has been opened in the United States. Government and law enforcement officials say such websites are clearly illegal and neighbors fear that they will attract crime or encourage drug use.
If Somerville succeeds in its plans, it would match its history as a trailblazer, Councilor Clingan said. The city made headlines across the country a year ago when it gave polyamorous groups the same rights as married couples.
Once a working class town known as an affordable haven for artists and college graduates, Somerville has been gentrified and seen property values soar. But its 81,000 residents remain diverse – a third are ignorant, many are immigrants, and the city’s website boasts that its schools speak 50 languages.
Somerville led the way in the opioid crisis that was spooked by overdose deaths among young people as early as 15 years ago, said Sciortino, who represented the city as state legislature from 2005 to 2014.
“People from all parts of the community have lost friends, children and loved ones and have long grappled with this reality,” he said. “It creates space to reflect why this is important.”
Mary Sylla, senior attorney for the California-based Drug Policy Alliance, was enthusiastic about Somerville’s efforts but skeptical that the city would be the first.
“There are a lot of places that try and a lot of people say, ‘Maybe we’ll be the first,’” said Sylla. “The San Francisco Mayor’s Office is also reviewing locations and working with community groups that can and want to provide these services.”
Legislation pending in a dozen states – including Massachusetts and Rhode Island – would authorize monitored consuming points, though Sylla expects most of those bills to fail.
But Somerville wants to turn the process upside down by acting first.
“The moment a community says, ‘We are ready,’ a state and federal conversation is forced on how they want to deal with it,” said Sciortino.
However, if Massachusetts lawmakers pass laws to approve two pilot-monitored consumption locations, Somerville will be ready to house the first.
Even while state legislatures argue over the issue, the biggest obstacle has been the US government. The Federal Controlled Substances Act contains a provision informally known as the “crack house statute” that makes it a crime to “knowingly open, rent, rent, use any place, permanently or temporarily or to maintain, for the purpose of production, distribution ”. , or the use of a controlled substance. “
Lawyers have argued that this provision does not prohibit safe injection sites as its purpose is to save lives and provide health care. But in January the third U.S. appeals court in Philadelphia disagreed, declaring supervised consumption places illegal under the crack house statute. The judgment has no power outside the Third Circle, but it does influence the debate.
In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker has spoken out against safe injection sites, stating that they are illegal under federal law. Former Massachusetts attorney Andrew E. Lelling threatened the use of “law enforcement” if someone tried to open a supervised consumption point.
But the Biden administration will appoint a new US attorney.
“What we need is a US attorney who says, ‘Go out and save lives,'” said Sciortino. “Then Charlie Baker can’t say, ‘It’s illegal.'”
In April Curtatone signed a letter with the Mayors of San Francisco, New York, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking him to reverse the federal government’s interpretation of the crack house statute, or at least that Override Priority ”to enforce it. Garland did not respond.
Still, proponents of the Somerville site are optimistic that the legal landscape will eventually work out in their favor so they can avoid a potentially ugly showdown with law enforcement.
The train that Curtatone set in motion in 2019 is silently pushed forward.
A working group of about 30 community members, first responders and city officials met, slowed down but not stalled by the pandemic. Last fall, the city awarded a $ 12,000 contract to a group from the Brown University School of Public Health to produce a needs assessment and feasibility report, which was presented in a virtual town hall on June 10th.
The report concluded that Somerville would benefit from a monitored consumption point and should consider placing it in Davis Square or East Somerville, depending on where overdosing has occurred and public transportation access is available.
An online survey with 615 responses showed very strong support for the monitored consumption side. Notably, 56 percent said they had “no concerns” about such a facility in their neighborhood.
Respondents “weren’t necessarily representative of the Somerville population, but there were responses from people who lived in each neighborhood,” said Brandon Marshall, a Brown Associate Professor who worked on the feasibility study.
At the town hall on June 10, residents had questions, but the leaders of the effort did not experience any major resistance. A series of additional meetings will be held and when the city is close to identifying a potential location, neighborhood businesses and residents will be consulted and asked for their assistance.
“We must be careful and inclusive in our process to be successful,” said Doug Kress, city director of health and human services.
Felice J. Freyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer.