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Walsh ‘absolutely 100 percent’ supports safe injection sites

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh says he would “absolutely 100 percent support” state legislation authorizing a safe injection site for drug users.
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh says he would “absolutely 100 percent support” state legislation authorizing a safe injection site for drug users.(Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Thursday he would “absolutely 100 percent support” state legislation authorizing a safe injection site for drug users, using some of his strongest words to date in backing the controversial notion.

But Walsh also maintained that Massachusetts simply cannot open such a program until there is a change of heart at the federal level. US attorneys in Boston and elsewhere say federal law prohibits such facilities and have pledged to enforce it. Advocates say the law, intended to prohibit crack houses, doesn’t apply to these sites.

Safe injection sites or safe consumption sites are clean rooms where people can use illicit drugs under the watchful eyes of trained staffers who can revive those who overdose.

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With most street drugs now contaminated with deadly fentanyl, advocates say such sites are needed to save the lives of people who are unable or unready to stop using. More than 100 such programs operate legally in Canada and other Western countries, but no sanctioned sites exist in the United States.

Walsh served on the recently disbanded Harm Reduction Commission, which examined the evidence and recommended that the Legislature approve one or more sites on a pilot basis. Lawmakers are expected to take up the issue in the current session.

Walsh’s views on safe injection sites have been the focus of discussion and speculation as he evolved from firm opposition to open-minded questioning to tentative support. He visited safe consumption sites in Montreal and Toronto, and returned impressed.

“It’s time for the United States to have a real serious conversation about safe injection sites,” the mayor said in an interview after a visit to the Dimock Center to celebrate its renovated detox center.

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“These sites save lives. If we have safe consumption sites in Massachusetts, in an environment where it’s done correctly, there’s no question in my mind we would absolutely 100 percent save lives,” he said.

Walsh visited Dimock, a community health center in Roxbury with a large addiction treatment service, to tour the Dr. Lucy Sewall Center for Acute Treatment Services on the one-year anniversary of its renovation and expansion, and to discuss plans to use city community preservation funds to restore the windows at another building.

He met with about a dozen men participating in the treatment program. “I’m Marty. I’m an alcoholic,” he said by way of introduction.

Walsh, who has long been open about his recovery from alcoholism, described how he made a phone call one morning years ago and headed to the Gosnold treatment center on Cape Cod, changing his life forever.

“You’re sober today,” he told the men. “No matter what is going on in your life . . . if you stay sober it can’t get worse. You have to deal with the wreckage of your past, there’s no question about that, but you won’t add to that wreckage,” he said.

“This job I have as mayor is an amazing job and I love it. And I only have it because at some point in my life I woke up in my room . . . after drinking and passing out. . . . I had this awful empty pit in my stomach, in my heart, and I didn’t know what to do. Thank God I made that call.”

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