Pushes for local addiction policy change face uncertain future as Walsh takes DC job

Joe Biden just chose Marty Walsh as his next labor secretary. As Walsh eyes his DC promotion, and Boston politicians eye his old City Hall office, addiction/recovery advocates have mixed feelings.

A photo shows Boston City Hall. As Mayor Marty Walsh moves towards a new job as US Labor Secretary, local politicians are already lining up to take his place as their city’s top executive. (Photo used under Creative Commons license)

Upon confirmation by the US Senate, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh will be this country’s next labor secretary, the Boston Globe confirmed, Jan. 7. 

Here in Walsh’s hometown, that news and its ripple effects are already sending shockwaves through addiction communities. 

“There is no guarantee Boston will be able to fix the Mile with so many political changes,” advocate Yahaira Lopez wrote in a message to Substantive this week, referencing the “Methadone Mile” nickname given to the Mass and Cass area of Boston, which faces a concentration of drug issues. 

Walsh continues long career rooted in Boston

Walsh has been Boston’s mayor since 2014, winning re-election once and originally setting himself up to run for a third term this fall.

Before his experience in elected office, Walsh got his start in union administration, rising through the world of labor organizing in the 1990s. 

As mayor, he impressed national Democrats, speaking at the party’s 2016 convention and personally befriending now President-Elect Joe Biden. 

He will likely now be easily confirmed to his position in the President-Elect’s cabinet when the Senate holds hearings later this year. 

Walsh’s mayoral tenure marked by frustration over opioid response

For all his praise, Walsh has also earned criticism from experts and residents familiar with the opioid crisis particularly in the Mass and Cass portion of Boston’s South End and Roxbury neighborhoods.

“I know being a mayor is not an easy job, nor do I have any ill feelings towards Mr. Walsh,” Lopez wrote in her message. “I just wish he really addressed Methadone Mile.”

As they’re angry about past perceived failures in leadership, Walsh’s expected DC promotion, ushers in a period of potential uncertainty that could immediately impact any number of efforts advocates are now pursuing. 

Walsh departure complicates safe consumption site debate

At the urging of State Legislator Jon Santiago, Walsh had recently warmed to the controversial idea of safe drug consumption sites

These facilities are common in many other countries, employing harm reductionist thinking to justify providing a safe, sterile environment for people with addictions to use drugs. 

Safe consumption sites have been proven to decrease overdose rates just as they’ve offered financial savings to communities that host them.

Opponents worry, however, that such sites, which are illegal under federal law, could cause problems. Likewise, they say, public communication on these proposals has been overwhelmingly lacking. 

“We don’t want it at this point because we don’t know enough about it,” advocate and South End Resident Marla Smith said in an interview with Substantive last year. “There could be reasons [for a site]. But [if so] let me know. We just want to know what’s going on in our neighborhood.”

Close to two dozen state legislators did recently sign on to a bill to create a safe consumption site, likely in Boston. 

People like Senate President Pro-Tempore William Brownsberger say they don’t expect a vote in the immediate future. Regardless, even if they pass their law, lawmakers backing this won’t get anywhere in this city without support at City Hall. 

Depending on who ends up seated in the mayor's office following Walsh’s departure, pushes for or against safe consumption sites in Boston could either flourish or fail. 

“The concern is, does this leverage the political lobbying to approve safe injection sites here in Massachusetts?” Lopez, who opposes these sites, wrote to Substantive. “We don’t know if it will. It’s about the established relationships.”

Long Island Bridge saga looms over downtown political shuffling

Outside of the future prospect of safe consumption sites, Walsh’s new gig takes him out of town before the resolution of a crisis that started months after his inauguration in 2014. 

The Long Island Bridge closed in October of that first year in office. It was then demolished in 2015 as inspectors deemed its 60-year-old span unsafe for travel. 

That infrastructure policy decision, in turn, forced a sprawling recovery campus on Long Island to shut its doors, slashing local rehab capacity and dumping dozens of people with addictions onto the streets. 

Activists say they immediately saw an uptick in homelessness and drug use issues back in the Mass and Cass area following the bridge closure. 

The problem has since worsened. 

“When we walk out into the streets, we see people overdosing on the sidewalks,” City Council Candidate Leon Rivera told Substantive in an interview last year. “We don’t see outreach services.”

Boston remains locked in a battle with Quincy city government over rebuilding the Long Island Bridge and reopening the Long Island Recovery Campus.

In short, Boston wants to begin construction using plans they’ve already drawn up. Quincy, meanwhile, is pushing back, citing environmental concerns.

Though much of that fight is taking place in the courts, out of the control of Boston’s elected leaders, advocates in the South End and Roxbury, who desperately want the bridge rebuilt, hope Walsh’s departure might make room for a possible ally in the city’s top executive office. 

“[He] sold us out only to further his career,” City Council Candidate and lifelong advocate Domingos DaRosa wrote in a Facebook post blasting Walsh as this week’s news broke. 

City Councilor set to become interim mayor earns mixed reviews from addiction advocates

With Walsh likely starting work at the Department of Labor in the coming months, he’ll leave City Council President Kim Janey serving as Boston’s acting mayor either until a special election takes place, or until this year’s already scheduled election arrives in November. 

This is complicated news for advocates who have, at times, butted heads with Janey in her current position.

“It’s great to see a Black woman as interim mayor,” Leon Rivera told Substantive, Jan 7. “But I’m still looking forward to hearing from other candidates on how they will deal with the current situation [at Mass and Cass].”

Janey will be both the first Black person and the first woman to serve as mayor in a city historically and still infamously fraught with both racism and white, Irish, male political hegemony.

That’s a win for diversity that advocates are hailing especially in the wake of last year’s widespread protests for racial justice. 

Simultaneously, though, Janey has alienated many on the front lines of the addiction crisis through what South End and Roxbury residents say has been lip service and an over reliance on “cop-out excuses” for the city’s policy failures. 

“I understand that it’s a complex issue,” Rivera said in his interview last year. “But, because it’s a complex issue, that doesn't mean we shouldn’t be stepping forward and bringing out solutions.”

Lopez responded in harsher terms following this week’s news and the realization that Janey would be rising to the position of mayor.

“Kim Janey has made no attempt to address Methadone Mile in her public servant role,” she told Substantive. “There has not been a hearing, nor an ordinance change on this topic in a decade. We hope to see her take a bold approach on this issue, as lives are at risk.”

Kim Janey did not immediately respond to a Substantive request for comment for this article.

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