It’s entirely possible that various legal barriers will prevent Somerville from opening its first safe injection site next year. Still, Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone deserves credit for recognizing that an extraordinary crisis demands an extraordinary response.
In a Facebook post, Curtatone wrote, “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. . . 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.”
Safe injection sites, also called safe consumption sites, are designated places staffed by trained addiction professionals where people can use drugs — and, if necessary, be revived in case of an overdose. While they exist in Canada and Australia, they are illegal here under state and federal laws.
“Barring a change in the Justice Department’s position, if Somerville opens one, federal enforcement will follow,” Andrew E. Lelling, the US attorney for Massachusetts, said in a statement.
Under the current administration, any change in the Justice Department’s position is unlikely. While President Trump is taking undue credit for the first yearly drop in overdose deaths in three decades, he still hasn’t nominated anyone to lead the Drug Enforcement Adminstration. With no federal guidance, cities nationwide must weigh all options in stemming a dire situation that continues to threaten lives and upend communities.
That includes Boston. How the city is handling its own opioid crisis has been under scrutiny since “Operation Clean Sweep” this month cleared out Atkinson Street, an area frequented by addicts and the homeless. Sparked by an assault on a Suffolk County House of Correction deputy sheriff, the police action unfolded over two nights, and led to 34 arrests. Some had their wheelchairs and personal items discarded.
City councilors recently met to discuss safe injection sites here, but after several of them toured facilities in Canada, they questioned whether they are a viable answer for Boston. Mayor Martin J. Walsh is open to safe injection sites, but won’t consider a program without state legislation.
Ever since the Long Island shelter and treatment program closed five years ago, the city has been struggling to handle addicts congregating in the Newmarket Square area, where some services were relocated. Eventually, the city fenced off sections at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, the entrance to Interstate 93, to restrict access. Now, with old haunts largely off limits, more people are streaming deeper into the South End, alarming residents and business owners.
The current situation isn’t working for anyone, nor can Boston arrest its way out of what has become one of our greatest social problems.
Ideally, there would be a rehab bed for every addict who wants one — and every addict would want one. Yet that’s not realistic, if only because every addict isn’t ready to get clean. Keeping them alive long enough to get help is a logical step in curtailing overdose deaths.
What happened this month on Atkinson Street was a stark reminder of just what a tinderbox the situation has become in Boston. Curtatone is correct that the status quo, which has never been as successful as touted, won’t fix this crisis. The prospect of a safe injection site could jar action across the state — and perhaps the State House — to develop solutions to help addicts live long enough to get the help they so desperately need.