Massachusetts lawmakers heard testimony Monday on separate proposals to decriminalize drug possession and establish a pilot program of safe injection facilities where people could use illegal substances in a medically supervised setting to prevent overdose deaths and facilitate treatment.
The state legislature‘s Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Restoration held a hearing on the harm reduction proposals. Experts and those personally affected by substance abuse advocate new approaches to drugs that destigmatize addiction and provide people with resources outside the context of criminal justice.
The Decriminalization Act would replace criminal penalties for possession of controlled substances with a civil fine of up to $ 50. To avoid the fine, individuals could enroll for “needs screening to identify health and other service needs,” including, but not limited to, services dealing with problem substance use and mental illness, lack of employment, housing or food etc. The need for civil law services. “
For legislation on safe injection sites, the state would set up a 10-year pilot program in which at least two institutions “use harm reduction tools, including clinical monitoring of the use of previously obtained controlled substances in the presence of trained personnel who aim to reduce risk reduce disease transmission and prevent overdose deaths. “
A separate, less far-reaching bill that was late on the agenda would instruct the Department of Health to simply assess the feasibility of safe consuming places and then report to lawmakers by July 31, 2022.
The joint committee listened to academics, health professionals and lawmakers discuss the reform proposals, but did not take immediate action on the legislation. It is unclear when the invoices will be picked up for further review.
“By every metric, the war on drugs was a catastrophic failure,” said MP Mike Connolly (D). “In the United States, and here in Massachusetts, criminalization of drug possession is a major cause of mass incarceration. We know blacks were eight times more likely to be jailed than whites, and there is no question that criminalization of drug use has contributed to these terrible differences. “
Connolly is also the sponsor of the legislation, which received a hearing from the Joint Judiciary Committee in July to investigate the effects of legalizing psychedelics like psilocybin and ayahuasca.
Officials with at least one town in Massachusetts, Somerville, said there are plans to set up a safe injection facility in the jurisdiction. And they want the statewide law passed to provide additional protection from federal sanctions.
“State law, exercising its constitutional powers to legislate for public health and safety, has the ability to significantly mitigate these risks through laws that allow piloting of safer consumption points,” said Hannah Pappenheim, associate attorney the city of Somerville. “In addition, state legislation would also minimize the risk of costly – but above all protracted – legal disputes.”
The officer noted that a separate Pennsylvania case had been pending in federal courts for years about the legality of safe injection sites at the time.
A coalition of 80 current and former prosecutors and law enforcement officers – including one who is President Joe Biden’s election as Massachusetts attorney – recently called on the Supreme Court to open the case.
Xavier Bacerra, the Biden government’s health and welfare secretary, was among eight leading state law enforcement officers who filed an earlier amicus brief in support of the Philadelphia-based Safehouse’s safe injection site plan while serving as California attorney general.
“State legislation paves the way for a more convenient process in Somerville and, of course, elsewhere in the Commonwealth,” said Pappenheim.
Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone (D) said at the hearing on Monday that “It is important for Massachusetts to finally take a leadership role – not just putting together a strategy, but executing it that will reduce damage and save lives.” He admitted that he had previously spoken out against the concept of allowing safe consuming places; But his personal experience of knowing people in his immediate family who suffered from addiction, as well as his own review of the scientific literature on harm reduction alternatives to criminalization, led him to embrace the reforms.
Massachusetts lawmakers tabled similar laws last year, but they were never finalized.
The governor of neighboring Rhode Island signed a bill in July to establish a pilot safe-consumption point program that currently allows people to test and use illicit drugs in a medically supervised setting. It was the first state in the country to legalize the harm reduction centers. It is not clear whether the Justice Department will attempt to intervene to prevent such facilities from opening in this state.
Oamshri Amarasingham, Assistant Legislative Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, supported both reform proposals at the hearing on Monday, telling WGBH that establishing a pilot safe injection site program is “part of this puzzle” that is “critical and.” had great success ”. in other countries.”
The ACLU has long supported the move to a #Healthcare Approaching drug policy as a criminal …
– ACLU-Massachusetts (@ACLU_Mass) September 27, 2021
Shaleen Title, a former Massachusetts cannabis commissioner who now runs the Parabola Center, contrasted how laws deal with substances like caffeine, alcohol and nicotine differently than currently illegal drugs.
“How is that different from having these illegal drugs, where handcuffs and cages are involved, and what made it happen? The reason has nothing to do with science or evidence or the relative dangers of these drugs, ”she said. “The reason for this is that – and this is well documented – these drugs could be scapegoated and blamed for their association with indigenous and Indian, Mexican and Chinese and other cultures, and then used by colored communities, especially blacks and Latinos at the national level, attacking and here in Massachusetts. “
At the same time as Massachusetts lawmakers are delving into harm reduction and broadly decriminalizing drugs, local activists in the state are also pursuing reform of psychedelics.
Three Massachusetts cities – Northampton, Somerville, and Cambridge – each have passed resolutions to make enforcement of laws against the possession, use, and distribution of a wide range of psychedelics and other drugs less of a priority. Easthampton City Council is also considering a resolution to decriminalize a wide range of entheogenic substances with a session for Friday.
FBI data shows that marijuana arrests fell sharply in 2020 as both COVID and legalization spread