The dominant public health issue of the past year has been, without question, the COVID-19 virus. But during the pandemic, some of the public health crises that once captured headlines have wreaked just as much havoc as they did before this pandemic — among them, the opioid epidemic. As the United States moves forward with its vaccine rollout, offering the hope of ending the pandemic, it is also important to consider how opioid use has upended the nation with no cure in sight.
In Massachusetts, at least 1,141 people died from opioid overdoses during the first nine months of 2020, a comparable figure to that point in the previous year. These deaths are part of an epidemic that was spurred by the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma’s aggressive marketing of prescription painkillers, whose addictiveness was often undersold by the company and its owners, the Sackler family. It is particularly important that our community play an active role in combating this crisis because Tufts itself benefited from the profits made by Purdue Pharma. As the Sackler family faced criticism for its marketing tactics, its members tried to build more positive reputations as patrons of museums and universities, including Tufts, which has received roughly $15 million from the family since 1980.
In 2019, Tufts announced that it would change the name of its Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences, following activism from students and faculty. And to its credit, Tufts went beyond just symbolic measures, accompanying the name change with the creation of a $3 million endowment for initiatives to prevent and treat addiction and substance abuse. Tufts’ willingness to openly address its relationship with the Sackler family and cut its ties before other universities was a promising sign that the university remained committed to being a pioneer in harm reduction, a philosophy of public health that meets people at their current state and provides care with the recognition that people are often unable to maintain complete abstinence from drugs. But thus far, the actions of the resulting Tufts Initiative on Substance Use and Addiction have been limited to providing $150,000 in seed funding for research on substance abuse and addiction. To truly demonstrate its commitment to a community that has lost family, friends and neighbors to the opioid epidemic, as well as show that it can be a leader in addiction research, Tufts has a unique opportunity: It can help the city of Somerville to open one of the first supervised injection sites in the nation.
Supervised injection sites, where people can inject drugs under the supervision of nurses and authorized medical staff, have thus far been opened in countries such as Canada and Australia, but not the United States. In 2019, Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone pledged to open the country’s first such site right here in Somerville, though the pandemic has forced the city to delay its plans. If the city were to open such a site, it would have the potential to both save lives and more broadly shift the opioid epidemic from being a criminal justice issue to a public health one.
Mayor Curtatone announced his plans earlier this month to not seek reelection, adding uncertainty to the future of supervised injection sites in Somerville. But if Tufts is truly committed to its Initiative on Substance Use and Addiction’s aim “to help the countless individuals and families who have suffered as a result of the opioid crisis,” it should lend its name — and its financial resources — to backing a policy that studies have shown is associated with lower overdose mortality. As an institution that has accepted money made through the exploitation of people in pain, Tufts has both the opportunity and responsibility to offer its resources to support the opening of a supervised injection site. Direct political advocacy regarding an issue like this would without a doubt be controversial; what matters most for public health, however, is reducing fatality, not controversy.
There is no amount of money that can replace the lives lost to the opioid epidemic, nor is Tufts alone capable of changing the enduring criminalization of public health and systems of racial capitalism that have obstructed equitable drug policy in this country. However, the Tufts Initiative on Substance Use and Addiction, with the help of researchers and students at Tufts, can take steps to help fund and advocate for a supervised injection site here in Somerville, which has the potential to save lives and reduce dangerous stigmas surrounding drug use.