A bill that would, among other measures, allow the state of Connecticut to establish harm reduction centers in cities across the state was brought before the legislature’s Public Health Committee on Wednesday.
Harm reduction centers are facilities intended to allow those suffering from drug addictions a safe environment to use substances — including heroin, cocaine, and crack – under the supervision of healthcare providers and without fear of arrest. Senate Bill 9 would allow the Commissioner of Mental Health and Addition Services to select three locations where these centers would be built. They would then need to be approved by local elected officials.
Such centers have been controversial in the past, not just in Connecticut but across the country and around the world. Opponents see them as condoning drug use and potentially contributing to the opioid epidemic while research into harm reduction services paints a very different picture.
A survey of two sites set up in New York City, which was published last year, found that in the first two months of operation, the facilities received more than 5,000 visits from drug users. Providers responded 125 times in an effort to reduce overdose risk, including the administration of naloxone to reverse an overdose, oxygen, and hydration. Only three patients required transport to emergency rooms and there were zero overdose deaths associated with the program.
Additionally, researchers noted that patients received additional services, including counseling, hepatitis C testing, and holistic services.
Among those speaking in support of the bill on Wednesday was Sarah Evans, the Drug, Policy, and Global Programs Director at Open Society Foundations.
“First and most importantly, overdose prevention sites are proven to prevent overdose deaths,” said Evans, the former director of Insite, a facility in Vancouver, Canada. “Since it opened, Vancouver’s Insite has seen millions of visits, and thousands of overdoses, and no deaths. Not one. In fact, in the years following the opening of Insite overdose mortality in the surrounding community decreased by 35%. And that is not only true of Insite: today there are around 100 safe consumption sites around the world, operating for upwards of 35 years. The number of overdose deaths at any of these sites ever is zero. This is the number that could represent the future here in Connecticut, instead of the horrifying stats we have seen in recent years.”
It wasn’t just public health researchers or advocates speaking in support of the bill. Peter Canning, a Hartford paramedic who says he has worked in emergency services for three decades, also voiced his support for the efforts. Recounting some of his experiences responding to overdoses and treating addicts, Canning said of the centers “They won’t save everyone, but they will save those who walk those their doors.”
Harm reduction centers aren’t the only item addressed by the broadly worded Senate Bill 9, which also provides for a number of other services, many unrelated to the addiction crisis.
Though one section would provide for additional access to the life-saving medication naloxone through a bulk buying program, other sections address access to certain reproductive health services, the establishment of a Healthcare Career Advisory Council, a working group to look into expanding nursing care, and a measure to outlaw non-compete clauses in physician employment contracts, among other provisions.