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OPINION

We can’t arrest our way out of Mass. and Cass

Drug addiction and homelessness should be addressed as public health issues, not crimes.

A homeless man in a wheelchair sleeps on Massachusetts Avenue at 6 a.m. in November 2020.Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

Civil liberties advocates, business leaders, and Boston mayoral candidates all agree: New approaches are needed to address the pressing public health crisis in the area of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. The roots of the “Mass. and Cass” crisis — the distinct yet overlapping challenges of substance use disorder, mental health crises, homelessness, economic injustice, and over-policing — require bold, evidence-based solutions that extend beyond a single intersection.

City and state leaders must respond to these complex and interrelated challenges for what they are: public health crises, not crimes.

Our country’s 50-year failed “War on Drugs” — and locally, Operation Clean Sweep — prove that short-term law enforcement interventions are both ineffective and risk violating people’s civil rights. We will never be able to arrest our way out of the overdose epidemic or the tragedy of rampant homelessness. Experience teaches that violating people’s civil rights undermines both public health and public safety. And studies consistently show that medical treatment and prevention — not punishment — save lives and keep our communities healthy.

To that end, local and state government officials must actively and consistently engage clinicians, community health workers, housing advocates, and other experts to coordinate new data-driven solutions to this crisis.

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City officials should continue to proactively convene community stakeholders, impacted people, and experts to discuss how elected leaders can make smart investments in prevention, treatment, and harm reduction infrastructure to ensure people at risk of overdose can receive the care and support they need. City and state leaders should focus on ways to provide more housing and promptly provide safe, non-carceral places to rest, wash, and seek shelter free from COVID risks. State leaders must partner with city officials to overcome discriminatory barriers to siting decisions so that all of our communities are part of the solution. Most of all, our leaders at all levels should embrace a public health approach to facilitate a safer environment for all affected people, including neighbors and local businesses.

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Experience across the country and around the world demonstrates that harm reduction strategies are key to saving lives and keeping communities healthy. Safe consumption sites, like the pilot project recently authorized in Rhode Island, are illustrative. These medical facilities provide a person who uses drugs with sterilized equipment and access to health care services, as well as overdose-reversal medications as needed, free from fear of criminal prosecution. Already operational in Canada, Australia, and Europe, safe consumption sites are proven to save lives because they create a contained site for drug use, a safe space for people to access substance use disorder treatment information and referrals, and immediate medical intervention when needed. There is no evidence of increased crime associated with these facilities; in fact, safe consumption sites help create safer communities by reducing public drug consumption and publicly discarded syringes and supplies.

Recognizing the success of safe consumption facilities in other countries, Massachusetts’ 2018 Harm Reduction Commission recommended that a “pilot program of one or more supervised consumption sites should be part of the Commonwealth’s efforts to combat the opioid crisis.” Now state lawmakers are considering legislation that would establish such a pilot program. Like Somerville, Boston leaders should do all they can to advocate for this policy.

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Municipal policy is only one piece of the puzzle; we also need to reform state and federal laws that reflect the outdated mind-set of the War on Drugs. Our country’s approach to drug use has wasted hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars and subjected millions of people — disproportionately Black and brown people — to over-policing and mass incarceration. And it doesn’t work: Last year, more than 93,000 people died of overdoses in the United States, the highest number ever recorded. If anything, the criminal approach has exacerbated the opioid crisis by increasing stigma and creating barriers to housing.

The vast majority of American voters support eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession and replacing it with an approach centered in public health. This is how places like Portugal — which eliminated criminal penalties for drugs 20 years ago — have reduced overdose deaths by 80 percent. Oregon voters enacted a similar reform at the ballot in 2020.

Massachusetts can do better. Each year, thousands of people are charged for drug possession, cycled through jails and prisons, and placed on probation and parole for extended periods. Their criminal records can lock them out of jobs, housing, education, and more, derailing their lives and driving them to the streets. States and localities can save money by cutting unnecessary and counterproductive criminal system expenditures — no longer arresting, prosecuting, convicting, incarcerating, and punishing people for drug possession. That money is better invested in people’s health, housing, and education.

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Fortunately, Massachusetts lawmakers have proposed legislation that would make personal possession of scheduled drugs a civil — not criminal — violation, and offer people another pathway to recovery instead. Passage of this bill would go a long way toward redirecting public resources from the failed carceral approaches of the past to proven public health solutions needed for the future.

The situation at Mass. and Cass is not an isolated problem, and we cannot solve it with shortsighted solutions. Homelessness, mental health issues, and substance use disorder in Massachusetts are symptomatic of the state’s worsening overdose epidemic and lack of adequate investments in public health and affordable housing. With opioid-related overdose deaths rising across Massachusetts, federal, state, and local governments must work together to change course by investing in public health approaches that will make our communities safer for everybody.

Carol Rose is the executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.