Collins proposes new laws to combat opioid epidemic

State Sen. Nick Collins and Boston City Councillor Annissa Essaibi-George speak with a homeless man who gave his name as Ruben in front of the Universal Church on Southampton Street. Ruben said he has been living on the streets and in various shelters in the area for the past three years. Jesse Costa/WBUR photo

About two months after Boston police arrested dozens of people in “Operation Clean Sweep,” state lawmakers will consider legislation to address some of the issues that prompted the police action in an area of Boston’s South End where there are many services for addiction treatment and the homeless.

State Sen. Nick Collins, who represents Boston, said he’s bringing forward the bills because, for him, it’s partly personal, not just because addiction is in his family, but also because “Methadone Mile” — a controversial term used to describe the area — has affected him.

“There are very few places in the city where I feel unsettled,” Collins said during a recent walk through the South End neighborhood. “I’ve been all through the city; I grew up here. But I had to come here and search for a loved one battling addiction. No one knew where my cousin was after she ran from treatment.”

Collins’s brother eventually found their cousin. They went to court to commit her to addiction treatment under the state law known as Section 35. The law allows a family member or law enforcement officer to petition a court to send someone to treatment against their will.

“I believe that if we had not done that, she would not be with us today,” Collins said.

His bill will be heard by the Legislature’s Judiciary panel. It would create a way to hold people for up to 72 hours if a petition to involuntarily commit that person to addiction treatment has been filed.

Right now, when a Section 35 commitment is requested, police can issue a warrant and bring someone to court — so long as the courts are open. If that doesn’t happen, the warrant expires.

Collins said his cousin was found late on a Friday afternoon. The courts were about to close. If she hadn’t been arrested for an altercation, Collins believes she might have run away again. His bill calls for creating a Department of Public Health facility to hold people until the court can make a determination on forced treatment.

“When somebody overdoses and is horizontal — that’s a cry for help,” Collins said. “When we send public health and safety officials to respond to someone who has had an incident, and we just send that person on their way, that’s irresponsible in my opinion.”

Section 35 is controversial in Massachusetts. There’s little evidence it helps get people into long-term recovery. And many critics take issue with the fact that most of the forced treatment in Massachusetts takes place in jails and prisons.

Collins said correctional facilities are not appropriate places for treatment. He said the state should pursue setting up long-term recovery beds at Shattuck Hospital in the city’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, as well as at Long Island in Boston Harbor. He is in favor of spending what he said would be about $2 million a year to have emergency boat service to the island, which has buildings that were once used for treatment and homeless services. The buildings haven’t been operating since the bridge to the island closed in 2014 for safety reasons.

Collins defended Boston police and approved of the officers’ “Operation Clean Sweep” efforts in August. Although police said they wanted to target drug dealers who were preying on vulnerable people in the neighborhood for treatment, a WBUR review of the 34 arrests shows the bulk of the arrests were for drug possession charges or old warrants.

Nonetheless, Collins said he feels police had to take action because of the drug activities taking place around the intersection of Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue. An elementary school called Orchard Gardens is on nearby Albany Street.

“I think there are fewer people congregating here since ‘Operation Clean Sweep,’ and the problem isn’t as visible,” Collins said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean more people are better.”

Throughout the walk, Collins pointed out discarded syringes still littering the streets, people actively using drugs, and people staggering through intersections. One homeless man, Ruben, who only wants to be known by his first name because of the stigma of homelessness, said he had seen Collins in the area several times.

“Thank you for caring,” Ruben said tearfully. “Not many politicians come here.”

Collins said that because so many people come to Boston for addiction treatment and homelessness services, he’s asking his colleagues in the Legislature to visit the neighborhood and pitch in to help.

“This is not just a city problem, but a statewide issue,” Collins said. “We can’t just sit and wait. We need to move forward. “

Another bill proposed by Collins to be considered by state lawmakers would require pharmacies and other places that sell syringes to also provide a way to dispose of them. Collins said that 700,000 discarded syringes were collected by Boston workers last year and businesses need to step up and help.

“As a business that’s profiting off the sale of these syringes,” he said, “we’re asking them to come up with a plan to dispose of them.”

Collins said state and federal action is needed to address even more issues that are so visible in this part of Boston.

This story was first published on Sept. 23 by 90.9FM WBUR, which shares content and resources with the Reporter through a media partnership.