Nation’s First State-Regulated Overdose Prevention Center To Open in Providence

Overdose prevention facility operated by OnPoint NYC photo courtesy of OnPoint NYC

The overdose crisis is a national epidemic, claiming the lives of over 100,000 people per year – more than gun violence and traffic accidents combined .  With over 434 Rhode Islanders who died in 2022, many of us are connected – either directly or indirectly-  to this crisis.  For years, our country has treated substance use as a moral and criminal condition, filling prisons with people who use drugs as part of the “War on Drugs”. However, that strategy hasn’t worked to save lives and also has disproportionately impacted the BIPOC community who are more likely to be criminalized for their substance use.

With deaths rising despite decades of the War on Drugs, there has been a growing shift to change our approach to drug use and overdose. Increasingly drug use is understood as a medical and social matter, and one that requires care, rather than shame, to address. When people who use drugs are stigmatized, they are less likely to seek help. Due to stigmatization, many people use drugs by themselves,  and if they overdose, there is no one to help them. Increasingly, the shift has moved to a philosophy called “harm reduction” which aims to reduce the harms of drug use through clean syringes, knowledge and education, drug testing, and other services, rather than keeping people in the margins. Importantly, harm reduction states that – in addition to the tools to stay alive, people who use drugs deserve respect, dignity, and humanity.

One newer harm reduction program is called an overdose prevention center, also known as a harm reduction center or supervised consumption space. Overdose prevention centers are places where people can consume pre-obtained substances under supervision of trained professionals. The staff can ensure that each individual has the opportunity to test their drugs for fentanyl and other substances, and will also be readily available to prevent overdose or to facilitate the reversal of an overdose. When a potential overdose is spotted early, it can be quickly and effectively reversed with Narcan, the overdose reversal medication. These sites are incredibly effective at keeping people alive from overdose.

Overdose prevention centers have existed across the world for decades, including in Canada and Australia. Data from their experience has been powerful; evidence has shown that these sites save lives: no one has ever died at an overdose prevention center worldwide throughout the many decades of their existence.  Research shows that people who use overdose prevention centers are 30% more likely to access substance use treatment Research also notes that these sites have positive community impact by reducing public drug use and decreasing the amount of drug paraphernalia in the community; importantly these sites have no negative impact on crime.

Rhode Island is a leader in overdose prevention centers across the country. In 2021, Rhode Island was the first state to authorize overdose prevention centers by law. Rhode Island was also the first state to allocate the funding of these centers from opioid settlement dollars – lawsuits negotiated with opioid pharmaceutical companies as payback for the harm they caused. There are currently two overdose prevention centers open in New York City, but Rhode Island is the first state where these will be officially authorized and licensed by the state.

Project Weber/RENEW, a local non-profit that serves people who use drugs, and clinical partner VICTA have secured a location for the country’s first state-regulated overdose prevention center. The center will be at 45 Willard Avenue next to the Rhode Island Hospital Campus in Providence.

The team at Project Weber/RENEW

“It’s impossible to overstate how important an overdose prevention center is. It will help save so many lives!” says Dennis Bailer, Project Weber/RENEW’s Overdose Prevention Program Director. “People die when they use alone, and they don’t have to be alone. More people are dying now than ever before because the entire illicit drug supply is contaminated with fentanyl and other drugs. Overdoses are also now skyrocketing in our Black and Brown communities. It’s imperative that we do what we can to help keep people alive, and right now that starts by opening spaces like this overdose prevention center.” Dennis Bailer and Project Weber/RENEW Deputy Director Ashley Perry, both people with lived experience, will be the overall co-directors of the space.

The 20,500-square-foot facility will allow for the delivery of comprehensive medical, clinical, and social support services. Project Weber/RENEW will relocate its current operations at 640 Broad Street to this new location. The strategic proximity to the hospital campus presents opportunities for seamless medical integration. The center is slated to open in the summer 2024 and will be open during business hours.

The center will provide a range of services all in one location. These services, most of which are already available at Project Weber/RENEW’s current drop-in centers in Providence and Pawtucket, include access to basic needs such as food, water, and hygiene products; safer use supplies and Narcan/naloxone; case-management services, HIV and hepatitis C testing and linkage to care; housing support; peer recovery coaching; and support groups; among others. The new location will also include laundry and showers.

VICTA will have medical providers, nurses, and counselors on site to provide immediate access to services when an individual is ready for treatment. By offering ‘treatment on demand’, people using the overdose prevention center can act on their key moment of readiness to initiate change.  VICTA’s Chief Operating Officer Lisa Peterson reflected on the value of this program and partnership: “We know that motivation can be fleeting, and that recovery is not linear; we are committed to helping people stay as healthy as possible through every stage in their process.”

OnPoint NYC, operating in Washington Heights and East Harlem in New York City, is the only other organization in the United States operating an overdose prevention center.  Recent data from their two overdose prevention centers indicates that they successfully reversed more than 1,300 overdoses in their two years of operation, with only a handful requiring emergency medical services.

The RI statute requires municipal approval. The Providence City Council unanimously approved the location on February 1, 2024 in a resolution sponsored by Councilwoman Mary Kay Harris. Importantly – to our knowledge – this was the first time across the country a city council approved such a site.

In a press release, the Providence City Council noted:  “I am grateful to Weber/RENEW for the vision, advocacy, and hard work they have put into making Rhode Island’s first harm reduction center a reality,” said Council President Rachel Miller. “A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to tour the facility – there is no doubt in my mind that the center will save lives and prioritize the well-being of city residents. By creating a supervised and trusting environment and partnering with like-minded organizations, Rhode Island’s first harm reduction center will connect clients to healthcare, counseling, and outpatient services that will make a difference in people’s lives and throughout our city.”

The center, operational on weekdays, will have staffing provided by Project Weber/RENEW and VICTA, an organization providing integrated behavioral health and medical services. The staff will include experts with lived experience with substance use and recovery, including peer recovery specialists, counselors, and prescribers who can initiate medication for substance use disorder(s).

Rhode Island will be collecting data and evidence to show the impact on the state. The Rhode Island Department of Health will regulate the overdose prevention center and collect data on the center’s usage and overdose rates. A rigorous evaluation will be conducted by The People, Place & Health Collective (PPHC) at the Brown University’s School of Public Health to measure the program’s individual and community outcomes. Researchers at the PPHC bring decades of combined experience in evaluating harm reduction interventions, including overdose prevention centers in other countries.

The goal of the overdose prevention center is to keep people alive, connect some of our most marginalized communities to additional resources, and uphold people’s dignity and humanity. It’s a bold step, but one we must take if we want to address this large crisis facing our state. Rhode Island is leading the way, and the rest of the country is watching.

For more information about the Overdose Prevention site, contact Project Weber/RENEW at: