Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone plans to open a safe injection site next year in his city in an effort to protect addicts at risk of overdosing, he said Wednesday.
“The intent is to reduce harm and save lives,” Curtatone said, adding that he recently attended the funeral of an overdose victim.
He said that the city had convened a task force to look into the proposal and that officials intend to open the “safe consumption site” by 2020.
Curtatone elaborated on the proposal in a Facebook posting.
“The death toll in this opioids epidemic is too high for us to continue to act like the status quo has any chance of fixing it,” he wrote. “Supervised consumption sites may offend the War on Drugs mentality of some federal officials, but that mentality has done nothing but make this plague of addiction worse. These are our family and friends. This is in every neighborhood, even if it doesn’t seem that way when you walk around your block. It doesn’t take the form of street crime. It’s mostly quiet suffering behind closed doors.”
Curtatone continued: “The question facing us is do we want to lower our death toll or to posture while the body count rises? The decision we’ve reached is we intend to keep people alive. That’s exactly what these sites do. They also put people a step closer to treatment.”
The mayor previously discussed his plans with WBUR-FM, prompting a note of caution from Andrew E. Lelling, the US attorney for Massachusetts.
“Opening a facility for people to inject themselves with heroin and fentanyl is illegal under federal and state law,” Lelling said in a statement. “Barring a change in the Justice Department’s position, if Somerville opens one, federal enforcement will follow.”
Lelling said he’s “alarmed by the surge in public misinformation about these facilities. Yes, people have died at supervised injection sites — it happened last October, in Ottawa, Canada. No, there is no reliable statistical evidence that these sites do anything to reduce addiction rates, or even overall overdose death rates, since fentanyl and other synthetics have come to dominate the opioid epidemic.
“I agree that beating this public health crisis requires treatment and prevention as much as it does prosecution of drug traffickers,” the statement continued. “But supervised injection sites are not the answer.”
Curtatone told WBUR that the planned Somerville site would be a clinic where medical professionals will monitor illegal drug use and could reverse an overdose. He told the Globe that without a safe consumption site, users will continue to place themselves at risk in “the dark shadows of the streets.”
Known as a form of “harm reduction,” safe consumption sites are intended to prevent deaths by allowing people with addictions to inject drugs in a clean, safe environment where professionals are on hand to revive anyone who overdoses. Clients obtain their illicit drugs elsewhere and bring them to the facility. Clients also have an opportunity to receive medical care, clean needles, counseling, and referrals to treatment programs.
Curtatone’s comments came after Boston city councilors earlier in the week revisited the potential for safe injection sites in the city.
Tensions over open drug use and illegal activity in Boston’s South End neighborhood came to a head earlier this month, after an off-duty correction officer was beaten during a confrontation in an area where homeless people and drug addicts congregate.
Police responded with Operation Clean Sweep, leading to the arrests of 34 people over two days who authorities say deal drugs and prey on others seeking help in the area.
Proponents of safe injection sites say people are already using drugs and dying on the street, and a safe place to inject keeps people alive and can connect them to health care and addiction treatment.
Opponents say they encourage and normalize drug use and signal a failure in the war on drugs. Opponents also warn the sites would pose a danger to the surrounding neighborhoods.
It wasn’t immediately clear where Curtatone wants to open the site or when. He told WBUR that a working group formed this summer is looking at the legal, financial, operational, and community issues.