On Thursday, the Rhode Island House of Representatives voted 51-13 to pass a bill that proposes extending the state’s harm reduction pilot program for an additional two years from its current end date of March 1, 2024. Eleven representatives did not cast a vote.
The Health and Human Services Committee previously discussed the legislation in a Feb. 28 hearing and a March 15 meeting when the committee recommended passing the bill and sent it to the House floor for a vote.
For the pilot extension to take effect, the Senate must also pass a companion bill.
In July 2021, Rhode Island became the first state to license harm reduction centers, also commonly referred to as overdose prevention centers or supervised injection sites. At these locations, individuals can consume illicit drugs under the supervision of medical professionals, who may also provide forms of recovery assistance, The Herald previously reported.
No overdose prevention centers have opened in the state to date. Project Weber/RENEW, which provides Rhode Islanders with “harm reduction and recovery support” services, is currently working in partnership with CODAC Behavioral Healthcare to potentially open a site in Providence, The Herald previously reported.
According to State Rep. John Edwards (D-Portsmouth, Tiverton), harm reduction centers would be funded by opioid settlements.
In an email to The Herald, Annajane Yolken '11, director of programs at Project Weber/RENEW and overdose prevention center liaison, wrote that the extension “gives us more time to figure out all the necessary details to open a location.”
“This is something that has never been done in a regulated way across the whole United States,” Yolken told lawmakers during the Feb. 28 hearing. “Every protocol we’re developing, every memorandum of understanding, everything, is being created from scratch.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island also testified in “strong support” of the bill. Steven Brown, executive director of ACLU R.I., said that the organization wanted to see an amendment to the legislation that would extend the pilot program through July 1, 2026, instead of March 1 of the same year.
Legislation rarely “moves in the first few months of the session, so we just wanted to make sure that the program didn’t sunset before the General Assembly was able to pass more legislation on it,” Hannah Stern, a policy associate for ACLU R.I., said in an interview with The Herald. The bill was not amended before passage.
Before the vote, Edwards, who is the lead sponsor for the legislation in the House, advocated for the bill’s passage, noting that he has lost family members to overdoses.
“Why did they die? They died because they were alone,” he said. “No matter what you think about using drugs, this place, when it opens, will keep people alive.”
State Rep. Enrique Sanchez (D-Providence) said the pilot program affects Rhode Islanders from all walks of life and is particularly needed in the communities he serves. “These folks need help, these folks are human beings,” he said. “I have seen firsthand that (they) do not choose this lifestyle.”
Several representatives opposing the bill raised concerns about the legislation. State Rep. Charlene Lima (D-Cranston, Providence) said it was “absurd” to give government approval to support illicit drug use.
House Minority Whip David Place (R-Burrillville, Glocester), who opposes the legislation, said that he could support the bill if it was combined with broader drug de-stigmatization, such as the legalization of all Schedule I drugs including heroin, LSD and marijuana.
“This is a half measure,” Place said.
State Rep. Patricia Morgan (R-West Warwick, Coventry, Warwick) said she was opposed to the bill because it lacked a treatment component. “There is nothing that helps (individuals) break out of” addiction, she said.
The original pilot legislation states that each harm reduction center “shall provide referrals for counseling or other medical treatment that may be appropriate” for those using the centers, The Herald previously reported.
Jacob Smollen is a Metro editor covering city and state politics and co-editor of the Bruno Brief. He is a sophomore from Philadelphia studying International and Public Affairs.