Families of overdose victims press for bill allowing safe drug use sites
Published: 01-25-2024 7:12 PM
Modified: 01-26-2024 4:01 PM
BOSTON — On her 26th birthday on Nov. 30, 2018, Eliza Harper died from an accidental opioid overdose on the living room couch in her South Deerfield home, despite being in recovery for 10 months.
Her then 14-year-old brother, Jackson, was the first to come upon his sister that day.
“Jackson tried desperately to breathe life into her, but she was already gone,” said Cara Moser of Northampton, speaking Thursday at a press conference at the State House organized by the Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery, where large banners with photos of those who have died from overdoses were displayed.
The event showed support for legislation that would create overdose prevention centers across the state to reduce the growing number of fatalities, which reached 2,357 confirmed and estimated opioid-related overdose deaths reported to the state Department of Public Health in 2022.
More than five years after her daughter’s death, Moser said there is a continued toll from her addiction. For Jackson, now in college, there is an ongoing struggle with the trauma of that day, while grief remains for Moser. “Losing a child is the hardest, worst pain you can endure,” Moser said as she held back tears.
Last fall, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery took testimony on the legislation filed by Sen. Julian Cyr and Reps. Marjorie Decker and Dylan Fernandez and supported by 60 other legislators.
As written, the legislation calls for a 10-year pilot program in which communities could open supervised overdose prevention centers, also known as injection sites. People with substance use addictions could then take pre-obtained drugs at the centers under the supervision of trained staff who could help prevent the spread of infectious diseases like HIV, respond to potential overdoses, provide access to naloxone, known by its brand name Narcan, and connect participants to treatment or other services.
Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan was among those in October who called the placement of safe consumption sites “urgent and necessary” to address the fentanyl epidemic.
But such centers are illegal under federal law, though two are operating in New York City, and some states have moved to legalize them. According to the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance, there are more than 200 such sites operating in more than a dozen countries, many of them in Europe.
At Thursday’s event, Moser said that more than 10,000 lives have been lost to opioid overdoses, most involving fentanyl, in Massachusetts over the past five years. “To me these are crazy numbers, I can’t understand why we’re not moving on his legislation,” Moser said.
Overdose prevention centers are critical, Moser said, and she would welcome one in Northampton. “These centers have consistently demonstrated ability to prevent death from overdoses, and provide other vital services, spaces where people can feel safe and cared about,” Moser said.
Her daughter would have benefited, even after nearly a year of sobriety. “We thought we were all set, ready to go,” Moser said. But she said her daughter kept her trauma demons to herself.
The state legislation has support from 40 organizations, including the American Medical Association, the ACLU, the Boston Medical Center and Fenway Health.
Team Sharing’s Massachusetts chapter invited people to speak about their loved ones who have died from overdoses. “Please listen to their passion and their pain and the point they want to make,” said Maryanne Frangules, executive director of Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery.
State Rep. Kate Donaghue of Westborough spoke about her pain from having lost her only child, Brian Simpson, to an overdose and how the state legislation, enabling though not funding overdose prevention centers, will benefit those with substance use addictions and mental health challenges, and their families.
“Brian was a son, nephew a cousin, a brother to many,” Donaghue said.
Donaghue said preventing unnecessary overdose deaths is critical. “Time is overdue for these centers to become a reality,” Donaghue said, adding that it’s an important first step to keeping people alive.
“He died alone on the streets of Quincy,” Donaghue said. “It didn’t have to happen. Maybe if an overdose prevention center was available, he would be alive today.”
Donaghue asked those gathered in the room and watching online to continue telling their stories, as they put a face to the problem. “Everyone of you has a voice. Use it,” Donaghue said.
Cheryl Juaire, a founder of Team Sharing, has lost two sons, Corey and Sean, to overdoses. Overdose prevention centers can test drugs and allow people to use in a clean environment with trained health care workers, she said, and often food, showers, clothing and haircuts for dignity are offered, along with counseling and treatment recovery.
“Had there been someplace to go, maybe he would be alive today,” Juaire said. “Maybe both my children would be.”
Laurie McDougall of Dartmouth reflected on her son shooting up heroin and the efforts she made to keep him alive at her home-based overdose prevention center, giving him multiple doses of Narcan, doing chest compressions and lifting his body to the side so he could vomit.
“This is why we need overdose prevention centers. This is why we need professionals who know what they are doing, and can help my son,” McDougall said.
Gary Carter, who is on the Team Sharing board, talked about losing his son in 2018. “We never want any parent to experience our unending pain,” Carter said.
Lynn Wencus of Wrentham spoke about the Feb. 5, 2017 death of her oldest child, Jeff. He died of an accidental overdose at the age of 33. “The heaviness in my chest is painful, and I gasp to catch my breath,” Wencus said.
Wencus said the state’s Harm Reduction Commission in 2019 recommended Massachusetts cities and towns establish and expand harm reduction resources.
“While there is life there is hope,” Wencus said. “Simply put, when someone is dead, they cannot recover.”
Wencus pointed to the statistics showing 1,000 more overdose deaths in Massachusetts in 2021 than in 2014.
“Come on people, we can do better than this,” Wencus said. “Where is the outrage?”Scott Merzbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.