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Massachusetts lawmakers heard testimony Monday on separate proposals to decriminalize drug possession and establish a pilot program for safe injection sites where people could use illicit substances in a medically supervised environment to prevent deaths overdose and facilitate treatment.
The state legislature’s joint committee on mental health, addiction and recovery held a hearing on harm reduction proposals, with experts and people personally affected by addiction advocating for new approaches to drugs that de-stigmatize addiction and provide people with resources outside of a criminal justice context. .
The decriminalization bill would replace criminal penalties for possession of any controlled substance with a civil fine of up to $ 50. To avoid the fine, people could register for a “needs test to identify needs for health and other services, including, but not limited to, services that can address any problematic drug use. substances and mental health problems, lack of employment, housing or food, and any need for civil legal services.
For legislation on supervised injection sites, the state would establish a 10-year pilot program in which at least two facilities “would use harm reduction tools, including clinical monitoring of pre-controlled substance use. -obtained in the presence of trained personnel, for the purpose of reducing the risk of disease transmission and preventing overdose deaths.
A separate, smaller bill, which was added to the agenda as a late addition, would direct the Department of Public Health to simply “assess the feasibility” of safe consumption sites and then report back to them. legislators by July 31, 2022.
The joint committee listen academics, health professionals, lawmakers are discussing reform proposals but have taken no immediate action on any of the laws. It is not known when the bills will be brought up for further consideration.
âIn all respects, the war on drugs has been a catastrophic failure,â said Rep. Mike Connolly (D). âIn the United States and here in Massachusetts, the criminalization of drug possession is a major driver of mass incarceration. We know that blacks have been incarcerated at a rate eight times the rate of whites, and there is no doubt that the criminalization of substance abuse problems has contributed to these terrible disparities.
Connolly is also the sponsor of legislation that was the subject of a Joint Judicial Committee hearing in July studying the implications of legalizing psychedelics like psilocybin and ayahuasca.
Officials from at least one city in Massachusetts, Somerville, said there were plans to launch a safe injection site in the jurisdiction. And they want to see the bill passed statewide to provide additional protections against federal sanctions.
âState legislation, exercising its constitutional powers to enact laws for public health and safety, has the ability to significantly minimize these risks through legislation authorizing a pilot of safe consumption sites,â said Hannah Pappenheim , deputy lawyer for the city of Somerville, said. “In addition, state law would also reduce the risk of costly, but more importantly, lengthy litigation.”
The official noted that a separate Pennsylvania-based case over the legality of supervised injection sites had been pending in federal courts for years at this point.
A coalition of 80 current and former prosecutors and law enforcement officials, including one who is President Joe Biden’s choice for US attorney for Massachusetts, recently filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to take up the case .
Xavier Bacerra, secretary of health and human services in the Biden administration, was among eight top law enforcement officials in the state who filed an earlier amicus dossier in support of the sitemap Safehouse, based in Philadelphia, when he was California Attorney General.
âState legislation sets the stage for a faster process in Somerville, and of course elsewhere in the Commonwealth,â Pappenheim said.
Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone (D) said during Monday’s hearing that “it is important that Massachusetts finally lead, not just by compiling, but by implementing a strategy that reduces damage and saves Lives”. He conceded that he had previously opposed the concept of allowing safe consumption sites; but his personal experience with people in his immediate family who suffered from drug addiction, as well as his own review of the scientific literature on harm reduction alternatives to criminalization, led him to adopt the reforms.
Massachusetts lawmakers proposed similar legislation last year, but it was ultimately not enacted.
The governor of neighboring Rhode Island signed a bill in July to establish a safe consumption site pilot program where people could test and use currently illegal drugs in a medically supervised environment. It became the first state in the country to legalize harm reduction centers. It is not clear whether the Justice Department will seek to intervene to prevent the opening of such facilities in that state.
Oamshri Amarasingham, deputy legislative director of the Massachusetts ACLU, expressed support for the two reform proposals during Monday’s hearing and told WGBH that establishing a safe injection site pilot program ” is a piece of this puzzle “which is” of critical importance and which has had great success in other countries. ”
The ACLU has long supported the move to a #Public health approach to drug policy rather than criminal …
– ACLU Massachusetts (@ACLU_Mass) September 27, 2021
Shaleen Title, a former Massachusetts cannabis commissioner who now heads the Parabola Center, juxtaposed how the laws treat substances like caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine differently from currently illegal drugs.
“What separates that from when we have these illicit drugs, where handcuffs and cages are involved, and what led to that?” The reason has nothing to do with the science, or the evidence or the relative dangers of these drugs, âshe said. âThe reason is that – and this is well documented – these drugs could be seen as scapegoats and blamed on their association with Indigenous, Indian, Mexican, Chinese and other cultures, and then used to target communities of color, in particular. especially blacks and Latinos nationwide. and here in Massachusetts.
At the same time as Massachusetts lawmakers are addressing harm reduction and widespread drug decriminalization, local state activists are also pursuing reform of psychedelics.
Three Massachusetts cities – Northampton, Somerville and Cambridge – each passed resolutions to take law enforcement priority off the possession, use and distribution of a wide variety of psychedelics and other drugs. Easthampton City Council is also considering a resolution to decriminalize a wide range of entheogenic substances, with a meeting scheduled for Friday.
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