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Walsh says Mass. ‘not ready’ for safe injection sites

Massachusetts is “not ready” to open a facility where people can inject illicit drugs under supervision, Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston told a commission considering the idea Monday, even though he was impressed when he visited such centers in Montreal and Toronto.

The state lacks the infrastructure to accomplish what those much larger Canadian cities have done, and faces many open questions about who would fund and operate such sites, Walsh said. The Canadian programs are government funded, and the nurses who work there are government employees, he noted.

Once a firm opponent of the so-called safe injection facilities, Walsh has recently changed his opinion, saying that he understands the value of such programs. He called his visit to Canada “eye-opening.”

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Safe injection sites are intended to prevent people from dying of overdoses by enabling them to use drugs while monitored by trained staff who can rescue them if they overdose. Canada has dozens of such sites, as do other Western countries, but they are not legal in the United States.

“I was really moved by the process of these safe consumption sites, the thoughtfulness of them,” Walsh told the Harm Reduction Commission, a 15-member group advising the Legislature about the feasibility of opening such facilities in Massachusetts.

But then Walsh added:

“We’re not ready in my opinion, today in Massachusetts, to be able to do what they’ve done in Montreal and Toronto.”

Walsh said many of the Canadian programs emerged over time from established needle exchange programs, where people could get clean needles to prevent the spread of disease.

“It was built up over time,” he said. The needle exchange programs “had a clientele that already went there.”

Boston, in contrast, has one needle exchange program operating at two sites. “In the long term, it isn’t enough. We have to spread it around the system,” Walsh said. “Even if we bring safe consumption sites to Massachusetts, we have to find a place to locate them.”

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Statewide, there are 25 needle exchanges, with six more approved to be opened.

Walsh’s comments drew an emotional reaction from commission member Aubri Esters, who represents a group called the Boston Users Union.

“I am sick of having my people die every day all year long,” she said. “How many thousands and thousands of lives do we have to waste?” she said.

Some 2,000 people died of opioid overdoses last year, making Massachusetts one of the states hit hardest by the opioid crisis.

Walsh replied that even if a safe injection facility opened, people would still die in other parts of the city and state. Many die at home, he noted.

The commission plans to meet twice more before issuing its report on March 1.


Felice J. Freyer
can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer.