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City Lawmakers Urged To Support Overdose Prevention Sites

AP/Patrick Semansky

Baltimore healthcare providers urged city council members to support overdose prevention sites, places where people can use previously purchased drugs under the supervision of healthcare professionals, during a hearing Tuesday.

They said the sites confront the reality that people use drugs and allows them to do so safely.

The informational hearing, a result of a resolution introduced by City Council President and mayor-elect Brandon Scott in January, allowed city councilmembers on the Health Committee to hear directly from experts on overdose prevention sites.

Scott said that remnants of the war on drugs, such as the fierce stigmatization of addicts, haven’t been working in Baltimore, where opioid overdose deaths outnumber homicides.

“We will not continue to dehumanize people who use drugs in our community, in our actions, or in our policy,” Scott said. “The way that we have been doing has been broken is tearing communities and families apart.”

Ricky Morris, a community outreach organizer with Baltimore Reduction Coalition, said that life saving measures for people with opioid addictions like overdose prevention sites are as simple and easy as fastening a seatbelt or childproofing a house.

“But in these cases, what we try to teach people about is using Naloxone,” he said. 

A 2017 study out of Johns Hopkins University found that a $1.8 million annual investment in an overdose prevention site would save Baltimore City $7.8 million each year by reducing preventable infections such as HIV and hepatitis C and preventing emergency department visits and hospitalizations.

At least a hundred overdose prevention sites operate throughout the world, but none exist in the U.S., where Department of Justice officials have argued that maintaining any place for using illegal drugs violates the Controlled Substances Act. Philadelphia passed legislation for an overdose prevention site, Safehouse, and successfully defended it in federal court in 2019. That case is under appeal.

Overdose prevention sites would require support from both state and federal governments. Sen. Shelly Hettleman, a Baltimore County Democrat, says she will introduce a bill to develop six overdose prevention sites with community buy-in throughout the state when the General Assembly returns in January; similar bills, including one from Hettlemen this year, have failed to pass out of Annapolis. 

“We know that by establishing an overdose prevention site Baltimore will likely take state action first,” Scott said, adding that he is looking forward to working with Hettleman on her upcoming legislation.

Michael Collins, the Strategic Policy and Planning Director at the Office of the State’s Attorney for Baltimore City, urged council members to support overdose prevention sites. 

“We have a chance to save lives,” he said. “Our office stands ready and willing to work with you on this important issue.”

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.
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