PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island lawmakers have approved legislation to extend a pilot program allowing harm reduction centers to operate statewide.

The program was originally slated to end in March 1, 2024. Gov. Dan McKee tells 12 News he plans on granting the extension, meaning the program will now run through March 1, 2026.

“We’re moving ahead as planned,” McKee said.

McKee signed off on the initial two-year pilot program in July 2021, making Rhode Island the first state in the nation to authorize the so-called harm reduction centers.

But while Rhode Island was the first state to approve the concept, New York opened the nation’s first harm reduction center last year.

Project Weber/RENEW and CODAC Behavioral Healthcare are planning to open the state’s first harm reduction center in Providence, according to a spokesperson for the R.I. General Assembly. It’s unclear exactly when or where the facility will open.

Harm reduction centers are designed to provide a safe space for people dealing with addiction to inject illegal drugs under the supervision of medical professionals

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

Rep. John Edwards, the bill’s sponsor, said the goal of the program is to prevent drug overdoses.

“Not only do harm reduction centers severely mitigate the chance of overdose, they are a gateway to treatment and rehabilitation of people with substance abuse disorder,” Edwards said. “This program, which has seen so much success over the globe, is just getting started in Rhode Island.”

“These locations will be under the supervision of trained medical staff who can direct addicts toward substance use disorder treatment,” he continued. “It’s a way to tackle this epidemic while saving lives in the process.”

RICARES opened a mock exhibition in Providence two years ago to educate the public on how safe injection sites operate.

“You can’t get into recovery if you don’t have a heartbeat,” RICARES Executive Director Sandy Valentine said. “Safe injection sites really provide that bridge of meeting people where they’re at.”

“Folks can stay safe, stay alive and hopefully find that magic moment — when the right message at the right time hits them and they start to pursue recovery,” she continued.

The program requires all harm reduction centers to receive city or town approval prior to opening. The state has been accepting applications for proposed safe injection sites since March 2022.

“Shame and fear of criminal prosecution are contributing factors to overdose deaths, resulting in people hiding in back alleys to use, being afraid to seek help and dying alone,” Sen. Josh Miller said. “This pilot changes that equation. It will save the lives of those who use it, and I believe it’s a hopeful turn in our efforts to compassionately and effectively treat addiction in our state.”