February 21, 2023

Some in GOP decry overdose prevention bill as state-funded ‘drug den’ program

Matthew Reichbach

By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican

A bill that would allow for the creation of state-funded overdose prevention centers where drug users would have a safe space to consume heroin, fentanyl and other illegal substances cleared its first legislative committee Monday.

House Bill 263 passed the House Health and Human Services Committee on a 5-3 party-line vote.

“I just can’t get my mind wrapped around something like this,” said Rep. Harlan Vincent, R-Glencoe, who called the proposed overdose prevention facilities “drug dens.”

“This is not a drug den,” responded Rep. Tara Lujan, D-Santa Fe, who is co-sponsoring the measure with Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, D-Albuquerque.

“This is a harm reduction program,” she said.

The bill calls for the program to provide participants “with a safe and hygienic space to administer and consume previously obtained controlled substances under the supervision of personnel trained in overdose reversal.”

The bill would free participants, workers and others from criminal liability “for any action or conduct that occurs on the site of a harm reduction program or overdose prevention program.”

However, it would prohibit controlled substances from being sold, purchased, traded “or otherwise provided” to program participants.

“The way this bill reads, it only protects people who are abiding by the program rules, which is just possessing and using,” Emily Kaltenbach of the Drug Policy Alliance told the committee.

“They bring their own illegal drugs in and nothing can be done? They can’t be arrested?” Harlan asked.

“That is correct,” Lujan said.

The House Republican Campaign Committee decried the bill’s passage on Twitter.

“The party that says ‘never go backwards’ passed legalized drug dens‼️…no age limit. So much for protecting women and children!” the committee tweeted.

Former state Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, said in a tweet a quick search on the internet found no health or societal benefits from what she called Victorian-era opioid dens.

“SMH,” she tweeted, short for “shaking my head.”

“What’s next, removing informed consent for abortion? Yup — see HB7. So much for protecting women and children.”

Lujan said HB 263 seeks to prevent fatal and nonfatal overdoses, provide a pathway to treatment “for those who desire it,” reduce emergency room visits and prevent the transmission of infectious diseases.

“New Mexican families have been struggling with substance use disorder and trauma for decades,” she said. “With new adulterants widely available, we continue to see the rate of overdoses increase. We have to meet our community’s needs by offering wraparound services that not only save money, but more importantly, save lives.”

The bill prohibits the gathering of personal information about participants, such as their name and date of birth, prompting Rep. Jenifer Jones, R-Deming, to question how underage participants would be identified.

“The core a harm reduction program is to provide a safe space where there’s not judgment,” Lujan said. “A harm reduction is to meet individuals with substance use disorders where they are. … This is a program that we need to have in place, and if people are afraid, if they can’t go to a safe place and have those needs met or have a place to use these substances, then we are not meeting them where they are.”

Kaltenbach said the program is a bridge to services and treatment.

“We are all concerned about our children — and everyone — but I will say that if someone who uses drugs is dead, there is no chance for recovery, there’s no chance for services,” she said.

Kaltenbach said there are 180 overdose prevention programs worldwide, including one in New York where drug use is not evident.

“You walk into a room, and there’s a drop-in center,” she said. “People are sitting on the couch talking and drinking coffee. They’re watching a movie. It creates a community, and there are people there [that] find out exactly what that person needs, whether they’re 17, whether they’re 25 or 60.”

Dr. Wendy Johnson, medical director of La Familia Medical Center in Santa Fe, urged the committee to support the bill. Johnson said an opioid treatment program that started 10 years ago sees 300 to 400 patients monthly.

“I’ve helped literally hundreds of patients on the road to recovery, and I can tell you it’s not a straight line,” she said. “The vast majority do recover, but usually after a few relapses.”

When she asks her patients the most important factor in their recovery, they say it’s knowing people in their lives have faith in them and won’t give up on them, Johnson said.

“That’s what overdose prevention centers are; that’s what they represent,” she said. “People who care. People who help and sending the message to folks who are using that there’s a way out.  The path out of this epidemic isn’t through punishment and stigma. It’s through compassion and love, and that’s what overdose prevention centers are, providing that compassion and care and literally keeping people alive until they’re ready for recovery.”

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.