Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, during a hearing of the Public Health Committee. Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Lawmakers considered legislation on Wednesday that would establish three locations in Connecticut where individuals would be permitted to consume drugs in the presence of healthcare professionals who could administer overdose treatment if necessary.

The facilities, called “harm reduction centers,” are included as a pilot program in a broader bill raised for a public hearing in the Public Health Committee. The bill attempts to bolster the state’s response to the opioid epidemic.

The locations would be staffed by medical professionals with experience identifying the symptoms of an overdose and capable of providing emergency treatment including administering an opioid antagonist like Narcan. Staff would also refer clients to counseling for substance abuse disorder. 

During a morning press conference, one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, questioned how many more opioid-related deaths had to occur before the state takes substantial action to reduce overdoses.

“Every year, we are losing more than a thousand people in our state,” Anwar, who co-chairs the Public Health Committee, said. “Every day we are losing … four people, who are beautiful individuals, part of a family, like our family members.”

The bill does not specify where the three centers would be located. That decision would be made by the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and municipal officials in the chosen towns. The legislation proposes to pay for the sites using money from the Opioid Settlement Fund. 

During the panel’s public hearing, Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Commissioner Nancy Navarretta said her agency was supportive of harm reduction centers and already offered similar sites in Hartford. However, those sites do not allow drug use because such a policy would violate federal law. 

“DMHAS is concerned that language in SB 9 attempts to supersede federal law,” Navarretta told the panel. “Current federal law prohibits knowingly opening, leasing, renting, using, maintaining any place whether permanently or temporarily for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using any controlled substance.”

In response, Anwar, a pulmonologist, questioned how the state of Rhode Island was able to adopt a similar policy. Navarretta said the Rhode Island policy had run into difficulties as well, including community opposition that had complicated efforts to identify a brick-and-mortar site.

Anwar suggested that federal policy was obstructing efforts by Connecticut policymakers to curb opioid-related deaths.

“The challenge we have is that, despite a number of interventions, we have not had a major dent in the number of deaths,” Anwar said. “It’s almost like the federal law is coming in the way of saving [the] lives of our citizens.”

Navarretta agreed it was a serious issue. Asked about harm reduction centers operated by New York City, she said those sites were “doing great work.”

“We’ve actually been in contact with them,” Navarretta said. “We want to learn from other entities that are doing this successfully.” 

The New York centers have been funded by donations rather than federal or state dollars, Navarretta said, potentially avoiding federal sanctions.

Later in the hearing, Megan Kapler, an organizer with the advocacy group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, said the New York centers were in danger of running out of funding despite having saved around 700 lives since opening last year.

“These are sites of wellness, safety, compassion, and health,” Kapler said. “Please fund these sites with our opioid settlement dollars … Money that was secured due to the loss of lives should go directly toward services proven to save lives.”