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Md. lawmakers urged to consider safe drug-use space in Baltimore

Panel says program has been shown to work elsewhere

FILE - This Feb. 19, 2013 file photo shows OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. Opening statements are scheduled Monday afternoon, Sept. 18, 2017, in a lawsuit by the city of Everett, Wash., against the makers of the prescription opioid OxyContin, in which it claims the pharmaceutical company knew its prescription painkiller was being funneled into the black market, helping create the opioid epidemic. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

Maryland has seen the number of opioid-related deaths more than double in the last three years. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

ANNAPOLIS — A safe space in Baltimore for drug use for those addicted to opioids would generate an estimated $6 million in net health care cost savings and bring 121 people into treatment annually, according to a panel of law enforcement officials and a Johns Hopkins professor on Tuesday.

The panel appeared before a joint legislative committee on behavioral health and opioid use disorders in Annapolis and presented research that indicated Maryland would benefit from opening a safe-consumption space in Baltimore.

From 2014 to 2017, the number of opioid-related deaths reported in Maryland between Jan. 1 and March 31 more than doubled — taking the death toll up to 473, according to state health department data.

Based on the success of Insite, a pilot safe-consumption space in Vancouver, Canada, the panel predicted the effectiveness of a Baltimore opening. Insite was created in 2003 and in 2016, it had 214,898 visits by 8,040 individuals, and 1,781 overdose interventions, according to Vancouver Coastal Health, which also reported an average of 514 injection room visits per day and zero fatalities.

“You can’t get better numbers than (Insite’s) when it comes to people using these drugs,” Neill Franklin, a retired police officer and executive director of Law Enforcement Action Partnership, told state lawmakers.

‘Realistic option’

The Vancouver space offers medical supervision, sterile equipment, syringe disposal, treatment referrals, overdose prevention, injection education and relationship development, according to the panel.

“(Safe consumption spaces) are moving forward quickly in San Francisco and Seattle and it’s looking like it is a more realistic option than it was last year,” said Amos Irwin, program director of the partnership.

According to research from the Harm Reduction Journal published in May, the creation of a safe space in Baltimore is predicted to cost $1.8 million to run annually but is expected to:

  • Prevent 3.7 HIV infections and save $1.5 million;
  • Prevent 21 Hepatitis C cases and save $1.4 million;
  • Save 374 days in the hospital for skin and soft-tissue infection and $0.93 million;
  • Save 5.9 lives otherwise lost to overdose and save $3 million;
  • Save nonfatal overdose costs of $258,000;
  • Save treatment costs of $640,000 for 121 people.

“Whenever anything is new to the country it takes a while for people to adopt it and it sounds like a foreign concept. … It takes people who have seen this work in other places to show that the results are effective and we have to get this information out there,” Irwin said.

Susan Sherman, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, explained that the opioid crisis is not going to be solved by only talking about treatment and prevention, but rather how to get people to these places of recovery.

“It’s not going to happen overnight, we’re not the only state discussing this. But, I would be shocked if in five years we were having the same conversation.”

Del. Dan Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, in the last legislative session proposed House Bill 519, which would create an overdose-prevention and safer drug-consumption program, however it failed to get out of committee.

Morhaim, a physician, called the panel’s evidence on a space in Baltimore “compelling” and said he is considering introducing the bill again.

“Instead of giving the person the needle and they walk away, you give them the needle and you give them the place to inject. This is how you connect with people and get them into treatment,” Irwin said.