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Boston, Cambridge mayors plan visits to safe injection sites in Canada

A safe injection clinic in Vancouver. A state commission is investigating the idea of opening such facilities in Massachusetts.Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via Associated Press/The Canadian Press via AP

The mayors of Boston and Cambridge are traveling to Canada this week to visit centers where people can inject drugs under medical supervision.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Mayor Marc C. McGovern of Cambridge, both members of a state commission investigating the idea of opening such facilities in Massachusetts, planned their trips separately and won’t be traveling together, officials said. Walsh plans to visit Montreal and Toronto, while McGovern will stay in Montreal.

Known as safe injection facilities or safe consumption sites, these centers aim to prevent people who use drugs from dying of overdoses. People obtain illicit drugs elsewhere but come inside to use them under the watchful eyes of medical professionals who can intervene if the users fall unconscious. The centers also provide clean needles, health services, and links to addiction treatment.


More than 100 such centers have opened in 66 countries, but in the United States they are illegal under federal law. Several cities, including New York and Philadelphia, are contemplating opening them, but federal law enforcement officials have threatened to shut them down.

Safe injection sites are allowed in Canada provided the facility’s operator has obtained an exemption to federal drug law from the country’s health minister.

Walsh plans to tour several city-run safe injection sites in Toronto on Thursday and in Montreal on Friday, and will ride along on a mobile outreach van. He will also meet with the mayors of both cities, as well as municipal public health and public safety leaders.

Boston’s chief of health and human services, Marty Martinez, and the director of the city’s Office of Recovery Services, Jennifer Tracey, will join Walsh on this trip.

“Our fact-finding trip to Canada is part of our overall comprehensive strategy to learn about and explore every possible way to address the ongoing opioid crisis in Boston and across our nation,” Walsh said in a statement.


Walsh had initially been skeptical of safe injection sites but has softened his stance, saying recently that, to combat the opioid epidemic, “we have to take different approaches and this could be one of the approaches.”

McGovern, the Cambridge mayor, is taking a delegation of Cambridge officials Thursday and Friday for a two-day visit to Montreal, where they will tour the city’s four supervised injection services and meet with site operators, city officials and community leaders.

The delegation will include the mayor’s chief of staff, Wilford Durbin, and several members of the City Manager’s Opioid Working Group, including two Cambridge Health Alliance physicians.

“I believe service providers and available case studies make a strong argument for why Massachusetts and others should expand the tool box we use to improve outcomes for residents and families caught up in the opioid epidemic,” McGovern said in a statement.

“I am grateful to our friends in Montreal for welcoming Cambridge’s delegation and allowing us to see firsthand the harm reduction strategies cities across Canada are using to mitigate their opioid epidemic, especially while such options remain prohibited at home.”

The Cambridge group will arrive Wednesday. Some will return Friday evening, but McGovern plans to stick around to observe the neighborhoods around the safe injection sites when the facilities are active on Friday night. He will return Saturday.

The state’s Harm Reduction Commission, a 15-member group that includes the two mayors, was established by legislation last year. The commission has until Feb. 1 to produce a report on the risks and benefits of opening a safe injection site in Massachusetts.


Felice J. Freyer can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer.