By Seth Daniel
A major showdown over safe injection facilities (SIFs) for opiate users took place on Beacon Hill this week, with an official hearing held on a proposed bill that would potentially allow such facilities in Massachusetts.
However, though many in the medical community are in favor – including the South End’s Health Care for the Homeless and the Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS), local leaders still aren’t exactly convinced.
The State House hearing took place on Wednesday, Sept. 6, too late for Sun deadlines.
On Tuesday night at the South End Forum, Mayor Martin Walsh officially announced he would oppose the bill – which is put forth by Sen. William Brownsberger, who lives in Belmont but also represents the Back Bay and Fenway.
“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,” the mayor said at the Forum. “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 are likely to include Councilors Michael Flaherty, Frank Baker, Tim McCarthy and Annissa Essaibi George.
The join many voices in the South End, including Forum Moderator Steve Fox. Many residents in the South End do not support a SIF, and especially one that would be sited in the Mass/Cass area or nearby in the neighborhood.
“On behalf of the South End Forum and our neighborhood associations, we stand in firm opposition to locating any pilot SIF program within or adjacent to the South End,” Fox said at a City Hall hearing in June. “We are dying by a thousand cuts and no one has addressed the influx of new clients coming in the SIF.”
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 (D-Charlestown), 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.
“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.