State dedicates $2.25 million to safe drug consumption sites

PROVIDENCE — A safe-consumption 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 see the project through.

The Opioid Settlement Advisory Committee on Thursday agreed to dedicate $2.25 million for a so-called harm-reduction center, according to Annajane Yolken, of Project Weber/RENEW. The centers, or safe-consumption sites, are spaces where people can use controlled substances they purchased under medical supervision, with an aim to prevent overdose deaths and ease people toward recovery and support services.

Progress is being made on Providence site selection

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

Project Weber/RENEW is teaming up with VICTA, which focuses on substance-use treatment, to launch a center. The organizations have been scouting buildings for possible purchase in areas in Providence that see the most opioid-related rescue runs and overdoses.

More:Health Department warns about drug-overdose uptick in East Bay, northeast RI

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

The organizations are also awaiting guidance from the city, whose staff has been meeting internally to review the legislation approving the centers and understand and determine the process for applications, Theresa Agonia, chief of external affairs for the city, said.

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

More:What’s the status of RI’s landmark ‘safe-injection sites’ program? Outreach is underway

RI is first state in US to embrace harm reduction strategy

State lawmakers last year approved landmark legislation to create safe-consumption sites for users of illicit drugs. Passage of the program made Rhode Island the first state in the nation to embrace a harm-reduction strategy that advocates say will save lives and reduce costly emergency runs.

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

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

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Miller, who sits on the advisory committee, stressed the importance of accelerating the development of a safe-consumption site as the state confronts increasingly lethal street drugs.

“From what I understand, they are getting really close to finding a spot they can use. I’m very excited,” said Rep. John G. “Jay” Edwards, D-Portsmouth and Tiverton.

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Centers have reduced overdose deaths in New York City, Europe and Canada

Edwards beat back any criticisms about the harm reduction centers, which have proved successful at combating overdose deaths in Europe, Canada and more recently New York City.

It is estimated that staff at the two centers opened last fall in New York City held more than 150 overdoses during about 9,500 visits in the first three months they were open, according to Associated Press reports.

“I think it’s an appropriate use of the funds, because it’s a proven method for saving lives. You can’t get people into recovery if you don’t save lives,” said Edwards, who sponsored the harm-reduction legislation and also sits on the opioid settlement advisory committee.

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

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In January 2022, Rhode Island joined the national settlement with three major opioid distributors, amounting to 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 manufacturer Johnson & Johnson and the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., brings the state’s opioid litigation recoveries to more than $114 million over the next 18 years, according to the advisory committee.

Eighty percent of the funds secured for abatement of the crisis will be overseen by the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services and distributed to programs throughout the state. All the funding 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 appropriations process.

A spokeswoman for EOHHS could not be reached Friday afternoon.

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

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