RI to open first supervised drug use site

By Beth Negus Viveiros
March 29th, 2024

Center is creating protocols for overdoses

Rhode Island’s first state-regulated overdose center is slated to open in Providence this summer.

The facility — a partnership between Project Weber/RENEW and VICTA — will provide a space where people can safely use pre-obtained substances under supervision.

“Opioid use tends to be isolating, and one of the biggest risks of overdose is using alone. I think any kind of community-based program is beneficial.” Debra Herman, clinical psychologist/researcher, Butler Hospital

Individuals will also be able to test their drugs for fentanyl and other contaminants, and staff will be on hand to prevent or reverse overdoses. Those interested in recovery will be able to speak to counselors and start accessing treatment on-site, regardless of whether they are ready for complete abstinence, said Lisa Peters, chief operating officer of VICTA.

“For many folks in early recovery, the biggest barrier is that they feel ostracized,” said Peters. “A space like this creates a better path to seeking treatment when people are ready.”

Debra Herman, a clinical psychologist and researcher at Butler Hospital in Providence, agreed, noting that the center is a good move for harm reduction and healthcare in general in the state.

“Opioid use tends to be isolating, and one of the biggest risks of overdose is using alone. I think any kind of community-based program is beneficial,” Herman said.

In 2021 and 2022 combined, more than 860 Rhode Islanders died from accidental overdoses, according to the RI Department of Health. Harm reduction centers were authorized under a 2021 state law.

Project Weber/RENEW, which offers peer-led harm reduction and recovery support services, currently operates drop-in centers in Providence and Pawtucket.

In addition to safe-use supplies and social services, the new facility will offer laundry and showers for drop-in clients. The overarching goal is to help people make safer choices and enable them to start treatment if they are ready, said Dennis Bailer, overdose prevention director of Project Weber/RENEW.

“I’m a person in long term recovery. The lives we often lead when we are actively using are not the lives we dreamed of having,” said Bailer. “If we have people who are using engaged in our services and trusting us, we can connect with them. There won’t be judgment if there are setbacks. If someone wants to get on a path of recovery, we want to raise them up.”

Peters noted that overdoses can often happen when people are using outside and rushing because they don’t want to be seen or arrested. They may be using in a secluded area, where they would not be quickly found.

“People are dying, and they don’t have to be,” said Peters. “These are all preventable deaths.”

The center is working on creating protocols to handle overdoses at the center, based on learnings from other similar facilities, such as OnPoint NYC. The goal will be to reverse the overdose as quickly as possible to mitigate any possible brain damage and do it in the center, as opposed to sending them to the ER, which can be traumatizing.

“But if there is anything beyond our scope, we are right across the street from Rhode Island Hospital,” Peters said.

Safe injection sites have operated in other countries for decades. The Canadian Government reported that while they have experienced 49,000 overdoses and drug-related emergencies at supervised drug consumption sites since 2017, there have been no reported fatalities.

OnPoint NYC’s two overdose centers report reversing more than 1,000 overdoses since opening in November 2021.

“An immediate response to overdose is a much different type of response to when people have been unconscious for a while,” added Bailer. “That is much harder, and much more medically intensive. If you can respond right away when someone is losing consciousness, it is much less difficult for person and the staff [treating them].”

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