A row of open injection booths line the walls at Insite Vancouver, a safe consumption site in Canada. There are 13 booths in this facility. Photo courtesy of Vancouver Coastal Health
Plan to launch nation’s first supervised consumption site is back in motion following pandemic pause
Supervised consumption sites—otherwise known as overdose prevention sites—have been implemented with demonstrable success in Canada, Australia, and much of Europe. Such sites allow people to consume substances—including intravenous drugs—under the supervision of trained professionals, who can administer or arrange life-saving care in the event of a medical emergency.
Despite evidence that this model of harm reduction saves lives, supervised consumption sites have yet to appear in the United States. The major snag is the Controlled Substances Act, which bars any individual or group from “knowingly and intentionally maintaining a place for the purpose of illegal drug use,” according to the Department of Justice. Citing this act, the Trump administration sued to halt the opening of a supervised consumption site in Philadelphia in February 2019.
In August 2019, Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone braved the hostile federal climate to announce plans for a supervised consumption site in his city. His initial goal was to have it done by the end of 2020, though the arrival of COVID-19 made that timeline untenable.
Now, Somerville’s Director of Health and Human Services Doug Kress said the city is back on track to potentially realize its trailblazing vision within the year.
It’s good timing, too: many supervised consumption advocates are hopeful that the Biden administration will take a more temperate stance on the issue than its predecessor, with which the Third Circuit sided in the Philadelphia case this past January. The new administration’s actual position remains to be seen, of course; Biden has been reticent to speak on the issue.
“We don’t mind being the leader in this,” Kress said on Somerville’s precedent-setting status. “We know that part of what we’re looking at here is trying to set a roadmap for others to follow as well.”
In setting this roadmap for the US, Somerville may import some wisdom from Canada. Kress said his team hopes to visit a supervised consumption site in Montreal and receive a lesson in best practices.
Somerville is also seeking wisdom at home: on May 25, the City will host a Supervised Consumption Site Town Hall to share its plans with constituents and make space for discussion.
“At the meeting, you can learn more about how SCS work, see data from a recently conducted needs assessment and evaluation, and ask questions of City officials and public health experts,” the event’s webpage advertises.
Kress said the forum will help his team understand “how we need to move forward in order to make this actually happen.” The city is seeking input about the location of the site itself, as well as what programming and social services it should offer.
“You want to make sure that the community itself is buying in,” Kress emphasized. “We realize that this isn’t for everybody—but there’s no one thing that fits everybody. This is just another tool in our toolbox that we can have for our community members.”
Somerville lost 14 residents to opioid overdoses in 2020, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Between 2015 and 2020, the city’s death count totals to 93.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Pandemic Democracy Project, Somerville News Garden, and Film Intervening Getting High Team initiatives. Learn more about BINJ and contribute at binjonline.org.