Advocates are demanding that Mayor Bill de Blasio release a city health department feasibility study on safer consumption spaces where users take their drugs in the presence of an overdose prevention worker.
Nearly 100 such facilities are operating around the world, but New York City has delayed moving forward on this solution even though a person dies of an overdose every seven hours, according to VOCAL-NY, a drug user advocacy group that decades ago grew out of an action committee of ACT UP.
“Mayor de Blasio made headlines this week when he joined a national effort and filed a lawsuit against manufacturers and distributors of opioid prescriptions,” said Jeremy Saunders, co-executive director of VOCAL-NY, in a news release as the issue was pushed to the top of the mayor’ agenda both by that action and by news reporting. “The truth is, that action was politically easy. If he wants to prove his progressive commitment to saving lives, he won’t just release this report, he will take immediate action to create safer consumption spaces in New York City.”
Philadelphia will start such a program, and a story this week in the New York Post disclosed that the NYPD and the health department were reviewing such a program. While the NYPD hasn’t endorsed the program, comments from the department encouraged drug law reformers.
“This is about the sanctity of human life, keeping people safe, making sure that people stay alive,” Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill told the Post, adding that the department is considering the issue thoughtfully but does not yet have a position.
Asked if the dam had broken, Kassandra Frederique, the New York State director of the Drug Policy Alliance, an umbrella organization devoted to decriminalizing drug use, said, “I think so. We are not talking about whether to do it, but about how to do it.”
But an informed conversation between advocates and city agencies is impossible without the feasibility study, funded with a $100,000 grant pushed by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson when he was chair of the Health Committee. These funds were made available more than a year ago, but the report was never released.
Gay City News sent a request under the state’s Freedom of Information Act for the study and, on January 11, was told it wasn’t yet finished.
“This has never been solely about drug consumption; we’re calling for spaces that facilitate health and enable healing from trauma, stigma, and marginalization,” said Daniel Raymond, deputy director for planning and policy at the Harm Reduction Coalition. “Mayor de Blasio’s leadership would send a strong signal of hope and compassion.”
The life-saving impact of safer consumption spaces is striking. After buying drugs on the street, users can shoot up at these facilities. The staff is equipped with naloxone, the drug that restores breathing when a user gets poisoned by opioids. After millions of injections of the life-saving medication, not one overdose death has been documented. Though overdoses occur frequently at safe consumption space, naloxone intervention stops these poisonings from turning fatal. Outside of such facilities, deaths are frequent.
Here in New York, where nobody injects in a supervised facility, overdose deaths have escalated and kill more persons than homicides and automobile accidents combined. According to the advocates’ press release, New York City saw more than 1,300 overdose deaths in 2016 alone — a 46 percent increase from 2015 and the sixth straight year of an increased overdose death rate.
San Francisco plans to open facilities this year, and Saunders, the VOCAL-NY leader, taunted the mayor for his cautious response to the epidemic.
“Despite an AIDS epidemic ravaging our city, syringe exchange was still illegal 25 years ago during the height of AIDS deaths,” he said. “Any rational and compassionate politician today will admit that was a mistake. Mayor de Blasio’s action will define how history will judge him.”
For more background on the campaign for supervised injection facilities, visit SIFNYC.org.