Illicit-Drug Use OK in ‘Safe' Site Under Maryland Bill

Illegal-drug users in Maryland could partake in recreational use under a bill that would create legal, sanitary illicit-drug use facilities in the state.

The bill, proposed by Delegate Dan Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, would create an overdose-prevention and safer drug-consumption program allowing drug users to legally ingest their narcotics under supervision of trained professionals and staff, in clean facilities.

"Let me be real clear, I'm not for substance abuse. It's a bad thing,'' said Morhaim, a board-certified physician with years working in emergency care. "I've seen the ravages, but we've been doing this for 50 years, and tried all these things. And after 50 years, there's not one data point that is better.''

In fact, opioid-related fatalities are on the rise, with more than 1,000 deaths in 2015 alone in Maryland, according to a Department of Health and Mental Hygiene report on drug- and alcohol-related deaths.

In contrast, in the roughly two decades that safe consumption rooms have been in use in other countries, there have been no fatal overdoses in any of them, according to Jamie Bridge from the International Drug Policy Consortium, headquartered in London.

In 2012, there were 87 legal drug-consumption facilities around the world in countries like Australia, Switzerland and Germany, according to the consortium, a group of organizations and professional networks specializing in illegal-drug production and use policy.

The facilities in Australia and Canada are the most heavily studied, potentially due to "constantly having to justify their existence,'' according to Bridge.


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But the value of safe-drug consumption facilities is "backed by a wealth of evidence,'' Bridge said.

Seattle is on track to become the first city in the United States with a drug-consumption facility, after it began the legislative process in the fall of 2015. Last week, officials there approved a measure allowing for creation of the first safe drug-consumption rooms in the nation. Opponents are already working to block any sites.

A drug-consumption room in Vancouver, Canada, has been extensively studied over its 14 years.

The facility, with 12 injection rooms, among other services, has had over 1.8 million visits, by over 12,000 individual clients, according to the International Drug Policy Consortium. The consortium also reported that the Vancouver facility successfully intervened during 221 overdoses, with no fatalities.

In contrast, Maryland saw a 47 percent increase in heroin-related deaths from 2013 through 2015, and a 142 percent increase in fentanyl-related deaths in the same three years.

Morhaim's bill would allow health departments in the state to approve or deny applications for facilities where people can use illegal drugs already in their possession without facing ramifications.

The Maryland program would provide sterile injection supplies, counseling services, testing for sexually transmitted diseases, and would educate drug users about safe-injection practices and overdose prevention, according to the bill.

The bill would also allow the safe drug-use facilities to bill insurers for services, with the user's permission.

Morhaim is aware of the potential concerns and backlash people may have.

"I understand that some of the ideas that I've put out are difficult for people to accept,'' he said. "And I would say that 10 years ago, five years ago, I wouldn't have been putting them in.''

But he also said, "Sometimes we have to change our perspectives based on actual facts. My perspective has changed and evolved over the years.''

This stigma surrounding drug-use facilities is a challenge not only for neighbors, but for drug users as well.

Bridge said there needs to be a movement to "demystify what these facilities are.'' He said people "are picturing a seedy environment, like a crack den. They don't always understand that this is actually a medical intervention. It is not condoning drug use,'' he continued. "It's just providing them a safe environment to use the drugs they were going to use anyway.''

Detractors may argue that it contributes to crime, but studies of programs in other countries show either no adverse impact, or a decrease in crime surrounding the drug use centers, according to the International Drug Policy Consortium.

Bridge said that drug-consumption facilities work best when working in coordination with local police departments, because if people are apprehended as soon as they arrive or exit, no one will use the facility.

Safe drug-consumption facilities are only one potential solution to a multifaceted problem.

Both Bridge and Morhaim said that there should be multiple options because each person is different and has different needs.

Morhaim said, "I don't think we'll ever actually have a substance abuse-free society. The challenge is harm reduction, and getting it under control to the greatest extent possible.''

The Maryland State Police Department referred all questions to Gov. Larry Hogan's office, which did not respond to requests for comment.

Morhaim has 13 co-sponsors for his legislation, HB519. A hearing on the measure is scheduled for Tuesday in the Health and Government Operations committee.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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