Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday he's skeptical about creating "safe injection sites" to help stem the state's opioid abuse crisis.
The Republican said it hasn't been demonstrated that allowing supervised spaces where drug users can shoot up under the care of staff who can treat an overdose if needed will help lead people into treatment.
Baker said he understands the argument that the sites could help reduce fatal overdoses, but added that he's still not persuaded.
"I'm kind of a hard sell on that, too," Baker said in response to a question as he testified at the Statehouse in favor of a bill aimed at curbing the opioid addiction scourge that has claimed thousands of lives in Massachusetts in recent years.
Baker said the legislation would build on a wide-ranging opioid abuse bill he signed into law in 2016.
Baker's new bill would authorize police officers and medical professionals to bring high-risk individuals to substance abuse treatment centers, even against their will, for up to 72 hours.
The bill also seeks to establish standards for credentialing "recovery coaches" who help people to overcome addiction, allow all pharmacies to carry the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, create a trust fund to help finance the expansion of educational and intervention programs in schools and make it easier to prescribe small amounts of opioid painkillers.
Baker said the last change "could dramatically reduce the number of pills floating around out there."
Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders defended the idea of expanding the use of involuntary treatment when needed, saying that Massachusetts law currently only allows for such intervention by court order.
"Too often we've heard from desperate families who have nowhere else to turn when they are in need of immediate help," she said. "Crises of addiction occur 24 hours a day, seven days a week — not only during the hours when a court is open"
Not everyone backs the idea.
Matt Segal, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said Baker's 72-hour involuntary treatment plan is "medically dangerous, raises serious due process concerns and wastes scarce resources."
"For over 40 years, America has been trying to arrest and coerce its way to decreased substance abuse," Segal said. "If Massachusetts is serious about ending the opioid crisis, we need to invest in treatment on demand and social services that do not take place in correctional settings, as opposed to coercion and imprisonment."
The Massachusetts Medical Society also expressed concern that "patients who have been involuntarily committed would end up in emergency departments, rather than in facilities and programs that can deploy medically appropriate approaches to aiding those with substance abuse disorder."
On the question of establishing safe injection sites — something not included in the bill — Sudders sounded slightly less skeptical than Baker. There is currently a bill before the Massachusetts Senate which would allow supervised injection sites.
Sudders noted that a handful of cities and states are considering such proposals and other countries already allow them, including Canada.
But Sudders also noted that such sites are still illegal under federal law. She said they are different from needle exchange sites, which are legal and are in part a way to help stem the spread of diseases like AIDS. She said the administration supports needle exchanges.
Baker's bill now heads to lawmakers.