Insite's safe injection site in Vancouver Courtesy: Vancouver Coastal Health

Connecticut residents are more likely to die from a drug overdose than a motor vehicle accident.

And the problem is worse here than in many places in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the 2020 drug-induced mortality per 100,000 was 39.1 in Connecticut, compared to the national average of 28.3. Between 2019 and 2020, overdose deaths increased 31%.

All the efforts made so far to address this crisis haven’t worked. The current criminal justice programs working to fight the crisis have not been effective. Drug-use incarceration should now be a thing of the past. Connecticut must move towards a restorative justice practice when dealing with the opioid epidemic and the overdose crisis.

State residents dealing with opioid use and abuse would benefit from the implementation of overdose prevention centers (OPCs).

OPCs allow people who inject substances to use self-provided drugs within a supervised framework in safe conditions with medical monitoring and no risk of arrest. The main goal of the sites is to prevent people who inject these drugs from overdosing while also offering them a connection to treatment programs.

OPCs are new to the U.S. but have been operating in many countries for decades. In fact, the first supervised drug consumption room was opened in Berne, Switzerland in June of 1986. The Canadian OPC, Insite, has been operating since 2003 with no reported instances of drug-induced overdose among 3.6 million visits, almost 50,000 clinical treatments, and over 6,000 overdose interventions.

It is time for Connecticut to adopt this idea in its most affected cities, particularly because street drugs are becoming more and more dangerous. Xylazine deaths alone in Connecticut amounted to 295 in 2021, and had grown to 353 in 2022. The presence of fentanyl has also not been adequately addressed, as in Connecticut 86% of overdose deaths were caused by fentanyl amounting to 1,311 total overdoses.

I currently intern at the State Capitol. Although there have been many concepts, bills, and resolutions brought to committees that address drug use this session, we still treat drug-users and drug offenders like criminals rather than people with a substance use disorder.

Dillon McDermott

There is great hope with the recent conversation surrounding Senate Bill 9 at the Connecticut Legislature. S.B. 9, an Act Concerning Health and Wellness for Connecticut residents, is a crucial step in equalizing access to healthcare for those in the state that are currently struggling from the fentanyl and opioid epidemic.

This bill initially included the implementation of overdose prevention centers. However, the Public Health Committee, which voted to pass this bill out of committee, said they do not intend to move forward with a proposal to establish three safe drug-use sites (another term for OPCs) in Connecticut because it would jeopardize federal funding. Sen. Saud Anwar who chairs the committee stated that they have “changed the language because if they are consumption sites or observed consumption sites, the federal law will restrict us.”

Many representatives in the committee were disappointed by the removal of the OPCs. Nonetheless, this initiative has been met with national criticism, including criticism from mostly Republican representatives in the committee. In New York, where an OPC just recently opened in 2021, state Rep. Nicole Malliotakis pressed the Justice Department to shutter what she sees as “heroin shooting galleries that only encourage drug use and deteriorate our quality life.”

But in fact, the evidence to the contrary is clear. In their first three months, the two sites in New York halted more than 150 overdoses during close to 10,000 visits, including 800 different users.

A 2014 systematic review examining 75 studies found that OPCs were efficacious in attracting the most marginalized people, promoting safer injecting conditions, enhancing access to primary health care, and reducing the overdose frequency. In terms of positively affecting the community, the same literature found that OPCs decrease the number of people injecting in public and reduce dropped syringes in public places.

In order to achieve federal funding and reduce the stigmatization behind OPCs and overdose prevention in general, this conversation needs to continue at the national level. Congress should push for federal legislation that allows each state to make a decision whether OPCs should be allowed. The overwhelming support from Democrats in the Connecticut legislature would transform into a bill that includes, promotes, and leads to the construction and operation of OPCs in the state.

This is the time for a new overdose prevention agenda to be passed through the Connecticut state legislature in order to combat the opioid epidemic, and it starts with overdose prevention centers.

Dillon McDermott is a rising Senior at Trinity College, majoring in Public Policy and Law.