Opioid reversal kit Credit: New2Me86 via Shutterstock

The opioid epidemic shows no signs of stopping, as new substances continue to be introduced to enhance drug effects, and state legislators are trying to find ways to combat the problem.

One idea that is being kicked around is establishing overdose prevention centers, an initiative that is already showing success at curbing overdose deaths in New York City. OPCs are places where individuals can safely use drugs under the supervision of trained staff. 

Sen. Saud Anwar, chair of the legislature’s Public Health Committee, said the Senate Democrats are planning on presenting a comprehensive bill on public health issues. A bill he is introducing – SB 23, An Act Concerning Opioids – includes overdose prevention. 

“I think harm reduction will be a very big part of the work that needs to happen,” Anwar said. “One of the components we have to look at is we are losing 4 people a day to opioid use, an overwhelming majority – 85 percent – are related to fentanyl.” 

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Anwar said Connecticut should seriously consider OPCs.

“There has not been a single death,” Anwar said. “Which tells me it is a very pragmatic approach.”

Right now there are two such facilities operating in New York City – one in East Harlem and one in Washington Heights. According to the Human Rights Watch website, NYC was the first city in the country to open these centers, and credited the initiative with preventing more than 600 fatal drug overdoses as of December 2022 – a year after they first opened.  

According to the NYC Health Department, more than 100 OPCs exist in 60 jurisdictions globally, adding that no person has died over an overdose at any of these facilities in more than 30 years of operation. 

Anwar said the bill calls for establishing these sites at locations in the greater Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport areas. The bill also includes a provision that would make fentanyl test strips and Narcan – used on people who have already overdosed on an opioid – more readily accessible at places like higher education institutions, and nightclubs. 

The drug epidemic is getting worse and more complex, Anwar said, with the emergence of new drugs. 

Public health officials have reported that substances like xylazine, an animal tranquilizer, is finding its way into recreational drugs. 

“In Connecticut, in March 2019, xylazine was identified as a novel and emerging adulterant in fatal drug intoxications when combined with fentanyl,” according to the Department of Public Health’s monthly drug overdose report, updated in January.

While the number may change as cases are pending, 312 people died, as of November 2022 as a result of xylazine-related overdose deaths. 

In addition, para-fluorofentanyl, a fentanyl analog, popped up in 2020 and was involved in 13 deaths that year, 94 deaths in 2021 and 33 in 2022, according to the DPH report. A new psychoactive substance, Flualprazolam, was involved in 5 overdose deaths in 2021 and 4 in 2022.

From January through the first week of December 2022, fentanyl was involved in 85 percent of the 1,284 fatal overdoses in the state. Connecticut saw 1,527 unintentional fatal overdoses in 2021.

Anwar said prevention education among youth will be an important element in combating drug use, as some students who get injured through sports can sometimes become addicted to opioids.

Republican legislators are pushing their own legislation as well. HB 5313 calls for the expansion of the peer navigator program for people with opioid abuse disorder, increase criminal penalties related to the manufacture and sale of a controlled substance, and establish an Office of the Chief Drug Policy Officer to coordinate efforts across state agencies. 

Rep. Carol Hall, a member of the legislature’s Public Safety Committee, is pursuing legislation – H.B. No. 5498 – that would allow police officers to take a person into protective custody when the officer has reasonable cause to believe that person is experiencing a narcotics overdose. 

“It’s a simple transport to either an ER or a treatment center,” Hall explained. This legislation would give police the tools to get someone help immediately following an overdose. 

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“The police have a hard time because they know that these folks need treatment and they need help,” Hall said. 

Currently, Enfield, Manchester and Vernon police departments have policies in place to get a person in touch with resources if they request it. 

“We are just lagging behind this epidemic doing the same things and it’s not working,” Hall said. “It just gives us a few more tools to try to get folks some help.” 

Enfield police chief Alaric Fox said he agrees that state statutes have not caught up to the real-world problem in 2023. He said his officers have saved people with the administration of Narcan who would have otherwise overdosed, and while those who are impaired enough by alcohol or some kind of mental health issue can be compelled to go to the hospital, that is not the case with people that were saved with Narcan.

“We say to them, ‘do you want to go to the hospital?’ You came within a hair of dying,” Fox said. “Half the time people say yes, half the time they say no. We leave them right there. We give them a punch in the shoulder and we say best of luck to you.” 

Hall said this is the sixth year she has tried to get this bill passed. 

“Listening to the stories of families, it’s just heartbreaking that they can’t get their loved ones transported to get some help,” Hall said. 

But with 4 people dying every day, Anwar said solutions need to be found.

“We can’t do this anymore.”