PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Organizations that want to open the first harm reduction centers in Rhode Island can now submit an application to the R.I. Department of Health (RIDOH).

Last year, Gov. Dan McKee signed off on legislation allowing for a two-year pilot program, making Rhode Island the first state in the nation to authorize the centers, designed to provide a safe space for people struggling with addiction to inject illegal drugs under the supervision of medical professionals.

March 1 was the deadline for RIDOH to iron out regulations for how the sites would operate. That process has been completed, according to RIDOH spokesperson Joseph Wendelken, meaning organizations can now apply to operate one.

“Harm reduction centers in Rhode Island will be an important part of Rhode Island’s approach to the drug overdose crisis,” Wendelken said in a statement to 12 News. “These community-based resources allow people to safely consume pre-obtained controlled substances in a supportive environment without legal repercussions.”

Canada and other countries have long operated harm reduction centers, but none had existed in the U.S. as they remain illegal under federal law.

In November 2021, officials in New York City gave the OK for safe havens for people to use heroin and other narcotics in hopes of curbing deadly overdoses.

While critics believe the facilities encourage drug use, advocates say they can be the difference between life and death for those struggling with addiction.

“Addiction is not a choice, and when you are in the biological stresses of addiction, you need to use but you don’t want to die,” said Selene Means, community engagement coordinator for the Rhode Island Communities for Addiction Recovery Efforts (RICARES).

RICARES opened a mock exhibition in Providence last year to educate the public on how a safe injection site would operate.

According to Wendelken, organizations interested in opening any harm reduction center in Rhode Island (including stationary, temporary service sites, and mobile units) must:

  • Submit a completed Harm Reduction Center Application to RIDOH.
  • Provide proof of municipal approval from a city/town council, or equivalent governing bodies where the center is to be located.
  • Receive a site inspection by a RIDOH representative and obtain an approval of compliance. Site inspections ensure all services and practices comply with Rhode Island’s regulations for Harm Reduction Centers.
  • Obtain an acceptable Life Safety Code/Fire Safety inspection report from the State Fire Marshal or a designee.

The pilot program will run for two years, ending March 1, 2024, according to legislation signed by McKee.

It “will be evaluated to help us understand the full public health and community impact of harm reduction centers in our state,” Wendelken said.

More information, including the application for groups to apply to operate a harm reduction center, can be found on RIDOH’s website.