With McKee approving harm reduction center pilot, advocates showcase how one would operate

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) ─ Rhode Island is preparing to launch a two-year pilot program that offers safe injection sites to those struggling with addiction.

Gov. Dan McKee signed off on legislation approving the program earlier this month, making Rhode Island the first state in the nation to authorize the so-called harm reduction centers.

The harm reduction centers will provide a safe space for people dealing with addiction to inject illegal drugs under the supervision of medical professionals.

Critics of the idea believe the facilities encourage drug use, but advocates like Machiste Rankin argue the centers are life-saving.

“The war on drugs hasn’t worked,” Rankin said. “It’s like trying to pick up a hot pan without oven mitts and thinking that if you keep trying, eventually you’ll stop getting burnt.”

What would a safe injection site look like?

RICARES recently created a mock exhibition in Providence to show and inform the public of how the centers operate.

Selene Means, who designed the exhibition, explained those visiting the site will first be directed to a registration desk where they’ll provide their information, including what substances they plan to use, to a staff member.

That information will remain confidential, Means said, and will only be disclosed to the medical professionals working there if necessary.

After checking in at the front desk, visitors will head to the waiting room until a spot opens up. In the waiting room, they’ll have the option to test their substances before using them by using what’s called a “mass spectrometer” or fentanyl strips.

Once a spot opens up, the visitor will be assigned to a booth or stall in the consumption room, where a range of sterile injecting and smoking supplies are provided.

The visitor is in charge of preparing and testing their substances before using, and Means said each visitor will be allowed approximately 30 minutes to do so.

Medical professionals staffing the center will be continuously monitoring visitors for overdose symptoms. If someone shows signs of overdosing, the medical professionals have the tools on hand to treat them.

Once a visitor is done using, they will be required to safely dispose of the materials and head to an observation area where they will be monitored briefly for overdose symptoms before leaving.

In the observation room, visitors will also have the option to connect with nurses, peer recovery coaches and case workers.

The mock exhibition is open to the public on Fridays from noon to 6 p.m. and is located at 133 Mathewson Street.

How would safe injection sites help?

Sara Reyes with RICARES tells 12 News she knows firsthand what it’s like to struggling with addiction.

“My addiction came from not being able to provide for my daughter, a mental health [illness] that had gone untreated, and unfortunately, the death of her father while I was pregnant,” Reyes explained.

Reyes is now in recovery and hopes these facilities will allow people to safely use while also connecting themselves with the resources they need to quit.

“Injection sites, they create hope,” she said. “They create support, and they create a place where the stigma is lifted.”

The idea of a safe injection site isn’t new. Canada, Australia and several countries in Europe have offered them for decades.

But while there are 120 sites globally, none of them are located in the United States.

Dr. Alexandra Collins, a research investigator with Brown University, said nationwide there was a 30% increase in overdose deaths from 2019 to 2020.

Collins attributes that increase to the pandemic and the nation’s drug supply.

“We have an incredibly potent drug supply, so fentanyl is really strong and it’s really kind of in the street-based market,” she explained.

Collins believes overdose deaths will decline once the country implements “comprehensive reform,” and while it isn’t the only reform that should be made, she said providing safe injection sites is a start.

Now that McKee has signed off on the two-year pilot program, the Rhode Island Department of Health is working with the state’s Overdose Prevention Task Force to come up with a rules and regulations for the centers.

Right now, the state hasn’t chosen an organization to operate the sites or where they will be located.

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