Hampshire HOPE: Making the case for overdose prevention sites in Massachusetts

  • Cara Moser shows a picture she keeps on her phone of herself with her daughter Eliza Harper, who died of an opioid overdose. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Gazette 
Published: 7/17/2020 3:02:58 PM
Modified: 7/17/2020 3:02:46 PM

More than 30 people from around the state logged onto a virtual meeting convened by Hampshire HOPE June 30 to discuss opening an overdose prevention site in western Massachusetts.

Also known as safe injection facilities, supervised injection sites and overdose prevention centers, these are places where people go to safely use drugs while being monitored by medical personnel.

The concept is controversial in this country, though such facilities have been open for years in other countries, including Canada. Proponents say they fall on the spectrum of harm reduction strategies like syringe exchange programs that reduce risk in order to save lives. At these sites, people use drugs they bring in with them, while medical staff can quickly administer the overdose reversal drug naloxone in the event of overdose.

Staff also offer medical attention for ailments associated with IV drug use, such as skin infections and hepatitis C. Studies of sites in other countries suggest they do reduce overdose deaths as well as related health problems while also providing an avenue to addiction treatment and other essential services.

Because people using alone are at much higher risk of dying from overdose or fentanyl poisoning, overdose prevention centers offer an evidence-based way to prevent death.

After a two-year legal battle, a safe injection site is poised to open in Philadelphia; advocates in other states are watching closely.

Among the participants at last month’s Hampshire HOPE meeting on the topic was state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, who went with two other state legislators in January to visit the Philadelphia site. She came away impressed and is now co-sponsor of a bill that would pave the way for pilot sites to open up in the state.

She sees overdose prevention sites as an essential part of an overall strategy to reduce risk for people suffering from substance use disorder until they can get onto a path of treatment and long-term recovery.

“It does feel like a really good step to stop all of the collateral damage,” Sabadosa said in a telephone interview. “It’s all about harm reduction.”

Deerfield resident Cara Moser, whose daughter Eliza Harper died in 2018, was among the presenters at the meeting. A portion of her statement is below.

Cara Moser: ‘Advocate alongside me’

For those of you who don’t know, I lost my daughter Eliza to a heroin/fentanyl overdose one and a half years ago. She relapsed 10 months into her recovery and died at home.

I’m here today to share with you a bit of my experience of living with, loving and losing one of my children to a common but toxic mixture of trauma, mental illness and substance use. Eliza struggled as a young 15-year-old girl. She didn’t know how to tell us her hidden story or how to ask for help. This trauma was too much to bear, and she learned that using drugs helped her escape the pain and anguish, but like a cancer, her fears grew and her drugs got stronger.

She battled her heroin addiction for six years and died on her 26th birthday. After her death, I promised myself and Eliza that I would fight for the rights of people suffering from mental illness and substance use disorders because no one else or their families should have to suffer or die from these treatable problems. I promised I’d work to strip away the stigma that cloaks these issues and advocate for overdose proven sites.

My introduction to harm reduction came by Eliza. She taught me by staying close and sharing her life with me. She taught me that abstinence wasn’t always the answer to recovery.

And I’ll admit I fought her on that concept for a good long while, but when she’d ask me questions like, “Mom, would you rather I OD on heroin or smoke weed?” Yeah, it slowly became clear to me.

Since Eliza nearly lost her life to overdose several times prior, of course, using drugs that caused less harm made good sense. We were in this battle together. We both wanted her to survive her addiction, and she wanted more than anything a happy future and child of her own.

So when Eliza died that day on the living room sofa, besides the overwhelming grief and horror of losing my baby, I was angry. Why wasn’t there a safe place for her to go to use her drugs? She could be here today, doing this work with me, if she had someone to supervise and administer the naloxone that day. That is why I advocate for overdose prevention sites.

My oldest daughter lives in Philly, and when she went back home after Eliza’s services, she found an article in the local paper about two people, Jose Benitez and Ronda Goldfien, who were working to open the first overdose prevention site in the country, called Safehouse. We met with Jose Benitez in his office at Prevention Point Philadelphia a few weeks later.

Izzy, my middle daughter, Kate, and I went to learn about Safehouse and overdose prevention sites, tour the Prevention Point facilities and shared our experience and offered our complete support for Safehouse going forward. To date, we’ve started a group of activists and supporters called Friends of Safehouse, we’ve pulled together a protest for the first hearing in the case of USA v. Safehouse, and helped influence the president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society to change his thinking on safe consumption sites.

And the best news is that the federal court judge ruled in favor of Safehouse, stating that overdose prevention sites do not create legal issues as related to the Controlled Substance Act, aka the Crack House Law.

My ask is that you, your friends, your neighbors, all of whom know somebody who suffers from or who has lost their lives to substance use disorders, advocate alongside me in support of overdose prevention sites. Thank you.

Laurie Loisel, director of outreach and education for the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office, and Cara Moser are members of the Hampshire HOPE opioid prevention coalition run out of the city of Northampton’s Health Department. Hampshire HOPE members contribute to this monthly column about local efforts addressing the opioid epidemic.
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