Story at a glance
- Rhode Island is accepting applications for safe drug consumption sites.
- The state is rolling out a two-year pilot program to see how harm reduction centers improve public health.
- The state experienced a 25 percent increase in drug overdoses in 2020.
Almost eight months after Rhode Island authorized safe drug injection sites to operate in the state, its Department of Health has opened up applications and is encouraging organizations to apply.
In July, Rhode Island authorized a two-year pilot program to try to prevent drug overdoses by establishing harm reduction centers, community-based resources for health screening, disease prevention and recovery assistance where people can safely consume pre-obtained substances.
The regulations for Rhode Island’s harm reduction centers took effect on Feb. 16, and now the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) has opened licensing applications for organizations interested in establishing harm reduction centers.
“Harm reduction centers in Rhode Island will be an important part of Rhode Island’s approach to the drug overdose crisis. These community-based resources allow people to safely consume pre-obtained controlled substances in a supportive environment without legal repercussions,” said Joseph Wendelken, spokesperson for RIDOH, to local media.
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Advocates urge the use of harm reduction, like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), because it incorporates a spectrum of strategies that meet people where they are on their own terms and serves as a pathway to prevention, treatment and recovery.
Provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that there were an estimated 100,306 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. during the 12-month period ending in April 2021, an increase of nearly 29 percent from the same period in 2020.
Under federal law, harm reduction centers remain illegal, but states are beginning to test them out. Similar to Rhode Island, New York City approved the opening of a supervised drug consumption facility, known as an “overdose prevention center.” The city’s health department said after three weeks of operation, two overdose prevention sites, “averted at least 59 overdoses to prevent injury and death.”
The health department also said in the first three weeks of operation, the centers were used more than 2,000 times.
Officials in Rhode Island hope to find similar success, as the state found drug overdoses increased by 25 percent in 2020. In 2021, over 400 people died in Rhode Island by overdose, the highest number ever recorded to date in the state.
Rhode Island’s harm reduction centers will offer naloxone, a medicine that can reverse an opioid overdose, harm reduction training and distribution of safer drug use supplies, like sterile injection, smoking supplies and fentanyl test strips.
Free sterile needles will be available, as will the safe and secure collection of used needles.
Connections and referrals to recovery support programs, treatment, counseling and housing, employment and legal services will also be available.
Rhode Island’s pilot program will end on March 1, 2024, at which point lawmakers will evaluate how the harm reduction centers helped public health.
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