Recently, my wife couldn’t get into our building because a person on drugs was zonked-out on our stoop. The woman had already refused ambulance help, so my wife called the police, who came and took the woman away. We live in the South End, near the Boston Medical Center and what used to be known as Methadone Mile, but is now euphemistically called Mass. and Cass. Like most residents of the neighborhood, we regularly see people who have substance abuse disorder standing slouched on corners, slumped over on stoops and benches, passed out on sidewalks, and shouting in the streets. Though Mayor Michelle Wu removed the tent encampments of Mass. and Cass back in January and moved more than 150 people into housing, the situation is as bad as ever. Because let’s face it: Boston’s homelessness problem is tied to its drug problem. And it’s time to stop tolerating it.
Let’s start by calling Mass. and Cass what it is: a trash-filled open-air drug market, where people shoot up on the street, sell and buy heroin and speed, steal, prostitute themselves, and die, all in broad daylight and largely without police intervention. The scene is utterly appalling and raises the question: What good is this so-called progressive drug tolerance policy doing anybody?
It’s certainly not doing the local business owners any good, or the residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, like myself and the families on our otherwise beautiful street. But most important, it’s not helping the people with substance abuse disorder, because it’s ultimately perpetuating addiction.
So why does the city tolerate such a horrible situation? Because it doesn’t know what to do? Well, here’s what it needs to do: Close the nearby methadone clinics.
Methadone, taken daily, helps reduce patients’ withdrawal symptoms and cravings for opioids and is a proven successful practice. But the concentration of methadone clinics and other addiction treatment centers at Mass. and Cass — there are about a half-dozen concentrated in the area — attracts those who seek treatment as well as drug traffickers. People wanting to get clean may succumb to temptation, and anyone wanting a hit knows where they can get it. The very purpose of having the clinics gets lost, as their concentration now enables addiction for many, not recovery. Therefore, the rational step is to close them.
I’m aware that my proposal goes against the current, progressive discourse of harm-mitigation measures. But despite its compassionate intention, a policy of drug tolerance has inarguably resulted in areas of abject misery and squalor — not only in Boston, but in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and several other progressive cities. That’s why Governor Gavin Newsom of California just vetoed legislation that would have allowed supervised drug-injection sites — because it’s clear that the majority of citizens want to end the addiction crisis in their cities, not enable it.
Let me be clear: Homelessness and addiction should not be criminalized, but they should not be tolerated either. After the clinics are closed, a resource-flooded task-force should eradicate the selling of drugs by arresting and imprisoning dealers. Then, for those unhoused people who want assistance, the city and outreach groups should continue to provide shelter and counseling. But for anyone using or possessing hard drugs, then the best and most compassionate thing to do is remove them from the streets and take them to detox in a recovery institution where they can be treated.
Some may argue that forced detox may not be possible or legal, and that such an approach takes away people’s autonomy and rights. But judges already commit people to addiction treatment facilities under Massachusetts’s Section 35 program. And the fact is that we cede many of our rights when we break the law — yes, using heroin, fentanyl, and methamphetamine is illegal. So though many people may not like the approach of coerced treatment and a zero-tolerance hard-drug policy, those approaches should be considered.
After all, residents and employers around Mass. and Cass are exasperated and want the drug market to be closed. “I can’t believe this . . . is allowed to go on,” Suffolk Construction owner John Fish recently told the Globe, saying he’s concerned about his 400 employees. After a recent knife incident at New Market Pizza, another construction business owner, Gerry DiPierro, told Boston 25News, “For my employees, you want to have a good environment for them, and it’s not safe.”
These business owners remind us that Mass. and Cass is not actually a “no-man’s land” between several neighborhoods, but a business district. Why should employees have to feel threatened just going to work? Why should residents of the South End and other neighborhoods surrounding the area tolerate finding people on drugs splayed out on our stoops? Why should parents tolerate their children finding discarded syringes on the sidewalks? Why should Bostonians accept substance use disorder as a perpetual aspect of our city? After all, it’s a problem that we can actually solve, if we dig up the root of it.
So what exactly is the city waiting for? It should close the methadone clinics around Mass. and Cass, stop tolerating the open use of hard drugs, and end Boston’s addiction crisis.
Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard University.