PROVIDENCE — The nation’s first state-regulated overdose prevention center is slated to open in early 2024 in Providence.
The center is expected to be staffed by the street outreach organization Project Weber/RENEW, in partnership with CODAC Behavioral Healthcare. The two organizations, which had submitted a proposal that was eventually selected by the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services, have proposed that the center be located on Huntington Avenue in Providence in a building CODAC already owns and operates.
These overdose prevention centers are more commonly referred to as safe consumption, safe injection, or harm reduction sites and are designed to prevent drug overdose deaths. The neighborhood where this first supervised drug use site is being proposed is in an overdose hotspot that has no direct residential neighbors.
“This is a historic and humane step forward in the fight against the epidemic of overdose deaths,” said Colleen Daley Ndoye, Project Weber/RENEW’s executive director, on Tuesday. “With more than 100,000 people dying in this country every year – and hundreds in Rhode Island alone – it is time for us to take action to keep more people from dying.”
This supervised drug use center will become possible in Rhode Island thanks to legislation that passed in 2021. The state health department will follow a lengthy list of regulations. And an evaluation will be conducted by The People, Place & Health Collective at Brown University’s School of Public Health, which will measure the program’s individual and community outcomes.
In 2021, accidental drug overdoses claimed a record high 435 lives in Rhode Island. Experts have pointed to powerful opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil causing a sharp increase in overdoses. Fentanyl, in particular, has long been detected in heroin but has increasingly made its way into other drugs like meth, counterfeit pills, and cocaine.
The center’s first year of operations comes from $2.6 million in opioid settlement funds previously distributed to Rhode Island. Trained staff will supervise others using drugs obtained elsewhere, but individuals will also be able to test their drugs for fentanyl and other substances on site. The site’s staff will be able to offer clean needles, wound care, case management, Narcan, and drug testing strips.
If a potential overdose is spotted, staffers will be able to act quickly to reverse it. A medical staff, including a nurse and doctor who can prescribe suboxone and methadone, will also be based at the center. Project Weber/RENEW’s deputy director Ashley Perry and Overdose Prevention Program director Dennis Bailer will serve as co-directors of the space.
Other areas of the world, such as Canada and Europe, have been operating similar safe consumption sites for years. New York City opened the first sanctioned sites in 2021; attempts in Philadelphia to open them have been tied up in the courts. Proposals for safe injection sites across the United States have been met with controversy, but data show they prevent overdoses and serve as a gateway to treatment and rehabilitation. Data from the two centers that opened in New York show that the staff reversed more than 600 overdoses in their first year. Only a few cases required EMS services.
Rhode Island’s center would be the first in the United States to be sanctioned by a state government. The site will also include other services, such as access to basic needs like food, water, and hygiene products; peer recovery coaching; support groups; HIV and hepatitis C testing; and more.
Bailer said it’s “impossible” to overstate how important an overdose prevention site could be. “It will help save lives,” he said.
“People die when they use alone, and they don’t have to be alone,” Bailer said. “It’s imperative that we do what we can to help keep people alive, and right now that starts by opening spaces like this overdose prevention center.”