The Rhode Island Senate approved a bill on Thursday that would create a harm reduction center pilot program, authorizing the establishment of facilities where...

The Rhode Island Senate approved a bill on Thursday that would create a harm reduction center pilot program, authorizing the establishment of facilities where individuals could use illicit substances under the supervision of health professionals.

The purpose of safe injection sites is to mitigate overdose deaths and also provide individuals with resources to combat addiction. There are more than a dozen cities throughout the U.S. that are considering permitting the facilities to curb opioid overdoses.

Under the legislation, the state Department of Health would be able to develop regulations and authorize harm reduction centers through a pilot program. Individual jurisdictions would be able to reject the facilities.

The proposal would also establish a nine-member advisory board tasked with improving the efficacy of the program and ensuring that the centers are safely operated. Law enforcement and health care professionals would be part of that board.

“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,” Sen. Joshua Miller (D), the bill’s sponsor, said in a press release. “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,” he added. “We could prevent needless death and turn lives around with a program like this.”

The bill now heads to the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee for consideration.

“It’s important to open a harm reduction center to prevent overdose deaths,” Annajane Yolken, co-chair of the Substance Use Policy, Education, and Recovery PAC, told Marijuana Moment. “This bill takes an important first step to bring an intervention that has been incredibly successful at saving lives to Rhode Island.”

“Furthermore, the RI Senate’s passing of the bill sends a strong message that as a state, we are serious in our approach to the overdose crisis and are willing to take bold, public health measures to keep Rhode Islanders alive,” she said.

Text of the legislation states that all harm reduction centers must “provide the necessary health care professionals to prevent overdose, and shall provide referrals for counseling or other medical treatment that may be appropriate for persons utilizing the harm reduction center.”

Other efforts to create supervised injection sites around the country have been met with local and federal resistance.

A federal prosecutor sued a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit in March after it announced its intent to establish such a facility somewhere in the Philadelphia area, for example.

A survey released this week showed that 90 percent of people in Kensington, Pennsylvania—the proposed location of a safe injection site—said that they support allowing the centers. That includes 63 percent of business owners and staff in the city.

California’s legislature approved a bill that would have allowed the facilities in 2018, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown (D). A reintroduced version of the legislation cleared the Assembly last month, and current Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said he’s open to signing it.

Last year, a congressional subcommittee approved legislation to specifically prohibit Washington D.C. from using local tax dollars to help open safe consumption facilities, but that language does not appear in this year’s version of the annual spending legislation as introduced by the House’s new Democratic majority.

Vermont’s U.S. attorney said in 2017 that such sites being proposed in his state would send the “wrong message to children in Vermont: the government will help you use heroin.”

If the Rhode Island legislature chooses to move forward with the Senate-passed bill, it’s likely to face similar federal pushback.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr/Governor Tom Wolf.

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