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Mass. doctors want task force to study safe places to inject drugs

Safe injection sites have shown promise in Vancouver and Australia, and medical experts want to explore if they could help fight the opioid epidemic in Massachusetts.
Supervised injection sites are seen as a means to reduce the impact of drug use. Metro file photo

An estimated 1,900 people died of opioid-related overdoses in 2016, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the highest year on record for a statistic that has increased rapidly in recent years.

To combat that devastating trend, the Massachusetts Medical Society thinks providing safe-injection sites could be a solution.

The society passed a resolution last weekend urging the commonwealth to form a task force to look into the effectiveness of a safe-injection site pilot program. These sites don’t supply the drugs, but provide medical experts who are trained to treat overdoses as well as social workers who can help people toward a path to addiction recovery, said Dr. Henry Dorkin, president of the society.

“The goal here is to save lives,” Dorkin said. “Many lives are lost through drug overdoses and hopefully this decreases the death rate.”

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Though the state is already fighting the opioid epidemic on multiple fronts, the Massachusetts Medical Society thinks more can be done, specifically to stymie overdose-related deaths.

“We’ve certainly seen a decrease in the past year in the number of narcotics prescriptions written by physicians, but we still need to do more because the problem is not going away,” he said.

The Medical Society looked to what other places were doing that worked and discovered that in Vancouver and Australia, safe injection sites are already in place.

Some officials have reservations about the idea.

On Monday, House Speaker Robert DeLeo voiced his concerns while speaking to reporters. “I think it’s counterintuitive to what we would think should be done,” he said. “I think I’d really have to hear a very convincing argument to convince me, but again, if they have that convincing argument then I’m open to it.”

Gov. Charlie Baker also told reporters that he wasn’t familiar with the idea, but said, “It’s certainly something obviously we’ll take a look at because we need as many ideas as we possibly can to deal with this problem.”

Dorkin understands that the concept seems unconventional and that people at first wonder why this would be beneficial in combatting the opioid epidemic. But that’s also the point of a task force, he noted: to find out if it would help addicts here.

“The data coming out of Vancouver and Australia is pretty compelling, otherwise we wouldn't suggest looking into it,” he said. “A request to look into it means examining it from every aspect, and only if we decide that the benefits outweigh the risks would we go further.”

 
 
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