Democratic lawmakers in Maryland are proposing legislation to create safe spaces for drug users to take illegal substances without legal consequences and with medical staff nearby.
The Public Health Overdose and Infectious Disease Prevention Services Program would allow community-based organizations to open up to six centers in non-residential areas where health professionals can monitor users, give first aid, and provide sterile needles. According to the bill, the centers would distribute equally in urban, rural, and suburban areas.
The bill’s chief sponsor, Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk, Prince George’s and Anne Arundel, acknowledged the controversy surrounding the bill at a hearing before the House Health and Government Operations Committee. However, Pena-Melnyk argued that the centers could save lives by preventing users from dying in back alleys alone.
“People are dying in back alleys by themselves,” she said, in deaths that could be preventable if they were observed. “I hope you open your hearts to try this.”
Maryland has seen a rise in fatal opioid overdoses, with fentanyl responsible for 81.5% of all overdose deaths from October 2021 to October 2022.
“I am traumatized by the look when people lose their lives from the horrible substance of fentanyl,” Ronald Phillips, lead recovery coach at Baltimore’s Center for Youth and Families, told the committee. “I have it stored in my head the horrors I’ve faced when I was an outreach worker distributing Narcan,” an overdose reversal drug. He said it’s a “must” that the state approve the pilot program for these safe spaces to prevent more deaths.
The prevention service centers would educate people on the hazards of drug use, give patients access to naloxone (an overdose reversal drug), and coordinate with substance abuse outreach programs and other community-based organizations for treatment.
“About half the substance-use families we serve have a loved one with an opioid use disorder,” said Ann Geddes, the director of public policy for the Maryland Coalition of Families. “These families are desperate for their loved one to get help; they live in fear that they’re gonna get this call that their child has overdosed.”
The bill has the support of various advocacy groups, such as the Maryland Coalition of Families, who see it as a step in the right direction to mitigate the drug epidemic. Maryland’s Department of Health can likely implement the program using existing resources and staffing to reduce costs, and insurance carriers for those who use the program will be billed accordingly.