Rhode Island Becomes First State with Harm Reduction Centers

harm reduction centers

Legislators and advocates believe the safety zones will mitigate the public health menace that is the opioid epidemic

By Jason Langendorf

Rhode Island has passed legislation that makes it the first state in the U.S. to authorize harm reduction centers that will allow people to safely consume pre-obtained substances under the supervision of healthcare professionals.

Rhode Island governor Dan McKee last week signed into law the legislation, introduced by Majority Floor Manager John G. Edwards and Sen. Joshua Miller, authorizing a two-year pilot program to prevent drug overdoses through the establishment of harm reduction centers, also known as safe zones, supervised injection facilities (SIF) or drug consumption rooms (DCR).

“The opioid epidemic has become a tremendous public health crisis, with overdoses of prescription and non-prescription opioids claiming a record number of lives,” Rep. Edwards said upon the announcement of 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.”

The statement from the Rhode Island General Assembly calls harm reduction facilities “a community-based resource for health screening, disease prevention and recovery assistance where persons may safely consume pre-obtained substances.” Roughly 120 supervised consumption services (SCS) facilities can be found across the world outside the U.S., according to the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which provided legislative drafting and technical assistance on the Rhode Island bill.

There are mountains of evidence, from years and years of experience in other countries, to show that these centers save lives, increase the likelihood of a person entering treatment and provide people access to other vitally important health resources.”—Lindsay LaSalle, Drug Policy Alliance

Once considered highly controversial, SCS facilities are being viewed in a new light as America’s opioid crisis explodes and other countries demonstrate progress in curtailing overdose deaths and drug use through supervised harm reduction programs. The Drug Policy Alliance notes that SCS centers are intended to complement, rather than replace, existing prevention, harm reduction and treatment interventions.

Said Lindsay LaSalle, managing director of policy for the DPA: “There are mountains of evidence, from years and years of experience in other countries, to show that these centers save lives, increase the likelihood of a person entering treatment and provide people access to other vitally important health resources.”

Support for Harm Reduction Centers

Rhode Island state senator Joshua Miller
Miller was key to pushing through the new legislation.

The American Medical Association (AMA) announced its support for the legislation, which goes into effect March 1, 2022. The law stipulates that the opening of any SCS center requires the approval of city or town councils where the facility will operate, and funding for the programs reportedly will come from non-governmental sources. Additionally, an advisory committee will be created to make recommendations to the U.S. Department of Health about policy and best practices around SCS, including ways to maximize the potential public health and safety benefits of harm reduction centers.

In the wake of a 2020 calendar year that saw a reported 384 accidental overdose deaths in Rhode Island, Sen. Miller voiced the need for treating addiction as a public health issue rather than a crime.

“People who are addicted need help and protection from the most dangerous possibilities of addiction,” he said. “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.”

Top photo: Raghavendra V. Konkathi

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