City, state, national politicians introduce new plans to address increasingly raging opioid disaster
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu revived a plan to use empty rooms in the Best Western Roundhouse on the South End-Roxbury border to house some of the area’s homeless population, while also providing new addiction treatment services in the building.
The concentration of people on the street and those coping with addiction near the intersection of Mass Ave and Melnea Cass Blvd is one of many major problems Wu inherited from her predecessor, though in fairness interim mayor Kim Janey also inherited a mess from Marty Walsh after Joe Biden brought him to Washington DC.
Mass and Cass has developed a reputation for being an open-air drug market where dealers prey on people seeking addiction treatment.
Before Wu officially took office in mid-November, Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins proposed forcing homeless folks in and around Mass and Cass into a currently unused portion of South Bay Prison. That idea was roundly panned.
Wu’s plan includes putting up 60 people in the Best Western hotel just south of Mass and Cass. Boston Medical Center will operate the site, which would also include a medical triage area and a safe space for people under the influence of opioids or other drugs.
The city’s plan was presented with a thud during a South End community meeting on Dec. 8. Residents reportedly offered significant opposition, with many continuing to gripe about Wu on the South End Community Board Facebook group. To nobody’s surprise, the Boston Herald’s also jumping on the pile.
“This whole idea is absolutely RIDICULOUS!!! We’ve fucking had enough of this BULLSHIT! Opening up a ‘treatment center’ in the middle of the busiest drug spot in Boston is the DUMBEST fucking idea ever!” one irate resident wrote on FB.
Another shameless NIMBY added, “I liked the Sheriff’s plan much better especially because he said he’ll take them and it’s a [government] facility.”
Janey previously considered using the hotel last summer, as well as one in Revere, but backed away due to community opposition. That was during an election. Now, it appears that current Mayor Wu is less shaken by community outrage.
Regardless of what the situation is at Mass and Cass, it remains but a piece of the state’s larger opioid crisis. Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration recently unveiled their ongoing plan to address the problem, boasting a series of funding initiatives before the state’s Public Health Council on Dec. 8.
Baker’s plan includes creating 38 syringe service programs, 33 naloxone-distribution sites, and a temporary community of tiny homes on the grounds of Lemuel Shattuck Hospital for about 30 people who are currently trying to survive at Mass and Cass.
The state’s Department of Public Health announced a month ago that opioid-related overdose deaths in the first nine months of 2021 were slightly higher than in the same period of time in 2020. Last year, there were a total of 2,106 opioid overdose deaths in Massachusetts.
“I don’t think there’s one answer,” Public Health Council member Harold Cox told the State House News Service following the Dec. 8 meeting. “I think that the rate and the acceleration of the overdoses, we can’t match with our programs. We are not bold enough as a country to make the decisions that need to be made, and I think that’s one of the problems, is that we’re being outrun by the drug problem.”
The plan comes years after Baker and Democrat state lawmakers accepted campaign donations from pharmaceutical companies that have profited off of the opioid epidemic. Meanwhile, Baker has ensured that the state remained a reliable patron of the consulting services of McKinsey & Co.—even while the same firm was helping opioid manufacturers better poison the general public for profit.
During his latest unrolling of a strategy to address the opioid crisis, on Dec. 1 Baker announced that neither he, nor his Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, would seek another term. For better or worse, their plan will likely be left for a successor to put into action.
As bad as opioid addiction is in the Bay State, things also continue to worsen on a national scale.
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control released data that showed more than 100,000 overdose deaths in the United States from April 2020 to May 2021.
“At a time when overdose deaths have reached an unprecedented number, we must meet people where they are and do everything we can to save lives,” Director of National Drug Control Policy Dr. Rahul Gupta said in a statement, which included encouragement for more states to enact needle-exchange programs. A month earlier, the same office recommended new laws that expand access to naloxone (the generic name for Narcan).
The office also announced that it would provide $30 million in grants for needle exchange services and naloxone.
At the same time, Congress is reportedly considering legislation to support President Joe Biden’s call for more regulation of fentanyl, which was present in over two-thirds of all overdoses in 2019, according to the CDC.
While making the media rounds to promote the Biden administration’s public health plan, Gupta has been saying it is time for the government to treat addiction like a chronic disease instead of one that can be solved through legal enforcement.
So far, Biden has neglected to take decisive action, but his administration is certainly talking the talk.
Zack is a veteran reporter. He writes for DigBoston and VICE, and formerly reported for the Boston Courant and Bulletin Newspapers.