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Advocates show Baltimore what a drug ‘overdose prevention site’ looks like

With drug overdose deaths continuing to rise, a league of advocates and providers have been pushing for safe, supervised places for people to use the drugs out of the public’s way.

The places, called overdose prevention sites, provide clean needles and test strips, access to treatment and support services and, most importantly, lifesaving interventions when things go wrong.

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Over the next few days, the local network of advocates called the BRIDGES Coalition, wants to show Baltimore what that would look like.

The group is running a mock overdose prevention space out of the NomüNomü Arts Collaborative in Mount Vernon, a location officials say would also be the kind of neighborhood where such a center could be located.

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“Baltimore is in crisis; the city lost over 1,000 people in 2020 and overdoses continue to rise,” said Rajani Gudlavalleti from the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition, a BRIDGES member that supports needle exchanges, distribution of the overdose remedy naloxone and other programs to reduce ill effects related to drug use.

“This is an intervention, one among many, and it can save lives.”

Gudlavalleti cites two centers operating without any fatalities in New York City since November. They were the first sites in the country after federal courts under the Trump administration shut down a center planned in Philadelphia citing part of the U.S. Controlled Substances Act known as the “crack house statute.”

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Other states are pursuing sites, hoping the Biden administration continues to be more amenable. They include Rhode Island, where the legislature has given approval, and California, where the legislature is pursuing approval.

Many city and state lawmakers in Maryland support the efforts, including Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott. Without universal backing from the public and even all drug treatment providers, plenty of others continue to oppose approvals.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has called such sites “absolutely insane,” though it would be his successor who has final say if enough state legislators get on board.

A bill to create and legalize the sites failed for six years in the legislature, and no bill was offered this year. Gudlavalleti, however, has lined up lawmakers to try again next year, with funding largely raised from private foundations rather than taxpayers.

In the meantime, advocates say the scope of the problem is huge and growing: There were 2,129 intoxication deaths in Maryland in the first nine months of last year, state data shows. Most street drugs now contain the more powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl plus ever more dangerous cutting agents.

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The group will work on boosting support for the sites as a means of moving drug users and their discarded paraphernalia out of the public domain to safer spaces.

The site plans to offer reserved tours to policy and lawmakers, as well as host an open house Tuesday evening. For more information go to bridges4ops.org


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