State spends $2.25 million on safe drug consumption sites

PROVIDENCE — A safe-to-use site is getting closer to reality in Rhode Island, after the advisory committee overseeing the distribution of opioid settlement money this week designated $2.25 million to carry out the project.

The Opioid Regulation Advisory Committee on Thursday agreed to spend $2.25 million on a so-called harm reduction center, according to Project Weber/RENEW’s Annajane Yolken. Centres, or safe consumption sites, are spaces where people can use controlled substances they have purchased under medical supervision, with the aim of preventing overdose deaths and referring people to recovery and support.

Progress underway on Providence site selection

The award comes as Project Weber/RENEW focuses on a shopping site in Providence, said Yolken, director of programs for the nonprofit, which provides harm reduction and recovery support services. She declined to provide details on the exact location, but the center will require city approval.

Project Weber/RENEW partners with VICTA, which focuses on addiction treatment, to launch a center. Organizations have been scouting buildings for possible purchase in areas of Providence that experience the most opioid-related lifesaving races and overdoses.

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“We work in tandem to provide as many services as possible under one roof,” Yolken said.

The organizations are also waiting on city councils, whose staff have met internally to review legislation approving the centers and understand and determine the application process, said Theresa Agonia, the city’s chief external affairs officer.

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza expressed support for the centers. The city has recorded 559 emergency calls for suspected overdoses and experienced 47 overdose deaths in 2021, according to the state Department of Health.

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RI is the first US state to adopt a harm reduction strategy

Last year, state lawmakers approved landmark legislation creating safe consumption sites for illicit drug users. The program’s adoption made Rhode Island the first state in the nation to adopt a harm reduction strategy that proponents say will save lives and reduce costly emergency runs.

The new law came as the state saw a record number of opioid overdose deaths. At last count, 435 people fatally overdosed in 2021, according to the Department of Health.

State Sen. Josh Miller, D-Cranston, has fought for passage of the legislation for years and has been a strong advocate for vulnerable Rhode Islanders, including those struggling with substance abuse.

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Miller, who sits on the advisory board, stressed the importance of accelerating the development of a safe consumption site as the state grapples with increasingly deadly street drugs.

“My understanding is that they’re close to finding a place they can use. I’m very excited,” said Rep. John G. “Jay” Edwards, D-Portsmouth and Tiverton.

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Centers reduced overdose deaths in New York, Europe and Canada

Edwards pushed back against all criticism of harm reduction centers, which have proven effective in tackling overdose deaths in Europe, Canada and more recently in New York.

Staff at the two centers opened last fall in New York City are estimated to have stopped more than 150 overdoses during approximately 9,500 visits in the first three months of their opening, according to reports from The Associated Press.

“I think it’s an appropriate use of funds, as it’s a proven way to save lives. You can’t get people to recover if you don’t save lives,” said Edwards, who sponsored the harm reduction legislation and also sits on the Opioid Regulation Advisory Board.

“There are so many people affected,” he said. “It’s important to open this center.”

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In January 2022, Rhode Island joined the nationwide settlement with three major opioid distributors, representing more than $90 million in funding for state and local efforts to address the state’s opioid crisis. That sum, combined with other settlements reached by Attorney General Peter F. Neronha’s office with opioid maker Johnson & Johnson and consulting firm McKinsey & Co., brings recoveries from opioid-related litigation to the state more than $114 million over the next 18 years, according to the advisory board.

Eighty percent of funds raised for crisis reduction will be overseen by the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services and distributed to programs across the state. All funds earmarked for specific causes, such as the $2.25 million dedicated to the centers, will be overseen by the Secretary of EOHHS and subject to the state’s appropriations process.

A spokeswoman for EOHHS could not be reached on Friday afternoon.

The Weber/RENEW Project and VICTA plan to submit a bid for the project, Yolken said.