Rhode Island could become the first state in the union to allow safe injection sites for illicit drugs under a bill passed by lawmakers late last week. Under the legislation, the state would authorize a two-year, pilot program for the operation of “harm reduction centers” where overdose prevention and other drug intervention services would be available.

Safe injection sites provide a medically supervised location where people can inject illegal drugs, including heroin, without fear or arrest. The sites are staffed by personnel trained to offer advice on safe injection practices, provide sterile supplies and monitor for signs of overdose. Staff does not provide, handle or inject drugs.

“The opioid epidemic has become a tremendous public health crisis, with overdoses of prescription and non-prescription opioids claiming a record number of lives,” Representative John Edwards said about the legislation. “Not only do harm reduction centers severely mitigate the chance of overdose, they are a gateway to treatment and rehabilitation of people with substance abuse disorder. These locations will be under the supervision of trained medical staff who can direct addicts toward substance use disorder treatment. It’s a way to tackle this epidemic while saving lives in the process.”

More than 100 safe injection sites have been established in at least 10 countries around the world, including Canada. Advocates for the facilities say they reduce drug overdose fatalities, help reduce the transmission of HIV and other communicable pathogens and provide services to end the cycle of addiction.

Safe Injection: Harm Reduction Instead Of Criminalization

Senator Josh Miller, the chair of Rhode Island’s Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, said it is time to take a new approach to drug policy.

“If we are truly going to rein in the drug overdose epidemic, we must recognize drug addiction as the health problem it is, rather than as merely a crime,” Miller said. “People who are addicted need help and protection from the most dangerous possibilities of addiction. Having a place where someone can save them from an overdose and where there are people offering them the resources they need for treatment is a much better alternative to people dying alone in their homes or their cars.

“Especially as overdose deaths have climbed during the pandemic and fentanyl-laced drugs continue to pose a lethal threat to unwitting users, we could prevent needless death and turn lives around with a program like this,” he added.

Efforts to bring safe injection sites to several cities in the United States have so far been thwarted by opponents who believe they encourage drug use and exacerbate crime. An effort to bring a safe injection site to Philadelphia by the nonprofit Safehouse was blocked by a federal appeals court in January.

“Safehouse admirably seeks to save lives,” states the majority decision in the case. “And many Americans think that federal drug laws should move away from law enforcement toward harm reduction. But courts are not arbiters of policy. We must apply the laws as written.”

Miller noted that when safe injection sites were proposed in Canada, many of the same objections were raised but fears failed to materialize.

“It’s shown to actually decrease crime instead of increase crime,” Miller said. “It’s shown that there are no fatalities in any of these facilities. They’ve been shown to be good community partners.”

With the bill’s passage in the state legislature, it now heads to the desk of Rhode Island Governor Daniel McKee. A spokesperson for the governor has told local media that McKee will review the measure when it reaches his desk but declined to say if he intends to sign the bill into law.

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