A legislative committee on Friday approved a bill that would allow Massachusetts to host centers where people can safely use illicit drugs under medical supervision, to prevent them from dying of overdoses.
The vote is a milestone in the years-long effort to start one or more of these so-called safe injection sites or supervised consumption sites in the state.
But it’s not the end of the road. The plan must win approval in the full House and Senate and overcome — or override — the longstanding opposition of Governor Charlie Baker.
The Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery approved the bill “overwhelmingly” but not unanimously, according to Representative Marjorie Decker, a Cambridge Democrat, and the committee’s co-chair.
Decker declined to release the exact vote tally for the 19-member committee. But a spokesman for Senator Julian Cyr, the Truro Democrat who co-chairs the committee, said five of the committee’s seven senators voted in favor and two did not vote. The lack of unanimity signals continuing opposition in the Legislature.
Opponents have expressed fears that such sites would increase crime in the neighborhood and encourage drug use. But advocates — including many public health experts — point to evidence from Canada and other countries that debunk such fears. Instead, proponents say, safe consumption sites prevent deaths and open the doors to needed health care, including addiction treatment, for people who are addicted to drugs.
Although safe consumption sites have long operated in other countries, no authorized site has opened in the United States. Several cities, most notably Philadelphia and New York, have moved toward opening them.
The Massachusetts bill would authorize the state Department of Public Health to open at least two sites in a 10-year pilot program. The department would establish a licensure process. Local boards of health would have to agree to participate in the pilot program before a site could be considered in their communities.
The sites would be required to provide a clean space for people to use drugs while being monitored by health care professionals or other trained individuals. They would also provide sterile injection supplies, advice on avoiding illness and infections, and referrals to treatment and recovery services.
Sites would be required to guarantee confidentiality to their clients, establish security protocols, and communicate with neighboring businesses, community members, law enforcement, and first responders.
Identical bills were released in each chamber.
The legislation, said Jim Stewart, a leading advocate in Massachusetts, “provides an opportunity to demonstrate what has been shown all across the globe — that safe injection sites save lives, reduce infectious disease, and reduce the amount of drug-related crime and detritus in the neighborhoods that host them.”
Decker, who sponsored the legislation even before she was a committee chair, said, “We worked really hard, We feel good. ...I’m really proud to have worked with so many amazing health care professionals, and so many advocates and individuals who have been in the throes of addiction themselves.”
Committee leaders said in a press release that the vote came after “extensive deliberation," multiple public hearings, and collaboration with local government officials, advocates, clinicians, researchers, law enforcement, legal scholars, and “most importantly, individuals or loved ones with lived experience in facing substance use disorder.”
Friday’s legislation emerged from years of debate.
In 2018, the state Senate killed a bill to establish them after Baker and US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling strongly opposed it, with Lelling threatening “law enforcement” if such a facility opened.
Legislators instead created a commission to study the issue, which recommended last year that Massachusetts test the idea in one or two pilots.
Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.