In a dramatic reversal of his stance on Safe Injection Facilities (SIFs), Mayor Martin Walsh told the South End Forum on Tuesday night that he isn’t completely opposed to SIFs, and is willing to have a “conversation” about them.
He did clarify that he would under no circumstance support a piloted SIF in the South End, however.
“If you’d have asked me two years ago, I would have said I was totally against them,” he said. “Today, I would say I’m open to having a conversation about what they do…Certainly I don’t think anyone should place a SIF here. I don’t agree with that. If we do it, we have to have protections and have data on it.”
The statement came during a long and involved discussion with the standing-room-only Forum crowd on policy regarding homelessness, addiction, recovery and relieving the stress on the community as a result of those things.
Mayor Walsh had been one of the harshest critics of SIFs in the recent past, saying they only invited people to prey on drug addicts and that they didn’t push people into recovery programs. He had said he believes SIFs only enable drug users.
The topic of SIFs has been very hot-button in the South End since the Massachusetts Medical Society put out a position paper two years ago advocating the exploration of SIFs and suggesting that a location in the Mass/Cass area would make sense.
Walsh said he was influenced by the mayor of Edmonton, in Canada, who was in Boston for the U.S. Conference of Mayors last spring.
“I had friends who went to Vancouver and looked at what they do and said we shouldn’t ever bring anything like that here,” he said. “They found that people were being preyed upon. I also talked to the mayor of Edmonton and they have SIFs there too. He said they are more of a social service. People are allowed to go to a hospital or health center. They’re spread throughout the city there.”
The announcement by Walsh turned the discussion totally around, but also seemed to be bookended by the fact that he would only entertain a conversation that advocated for spreading them out and not locating one exclusively in the South End – where there are an abundance of existing social services and methadone clinics.
The impetus for the mayor’s discussion was the fact that the State Legislature passed a pilot program that calls for studying SIFs within its omnibus opiate legislation passed in July.
In that piece, a study group was formed that includes Mayor Walsh or his representative. He said he would participate in that group and it would likely be the vehicle for an expanded conversation on SIFs.
“They are going to explore that and they’ve asked me to be on it,” he said. “I think it’s worth having a conversation. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, we shouldn’t do it. The goal for me would always be to get more people in recovery. If it’s a place where that happens, then maybe it could work. I’m not in favor of something that’s just a safe place to shoot heroin. My goal is to get them in recovery.”