New York City has become the first in the U.S. to open its own supervised drug consumption sites in hopes of combating a growing number of overdose deaths.
The “Overdose Prevention Centers” that went online Tuesday, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office, are “safe places where people who use drugs can receive medical care and be connected to treatment and social services.” They will be co-located with “previously established syringe service providers”, which in 2018, distributed at least 4.5 million clean needles to drug users across the five boroughs.
“Overdose Prevention Centers are a safe and effective way to address the opioid crisis,” De Blasio said in a statement. “I’m proud to show cities in this country that after decades of failure, a smarter approach is possible.”
The city reported 596 overdose deaths in the first quarter of this year – which it says is the highest in a single quarter since it began tracking them in 2000. Its Health Department also conducted a study suggesting the centers could help save up to 130 lives annually.
The first two sites with trained staff opened Tuesday in the Manhattan neighborhoods of East Harlem and Washington Heights, according to the New York Times.
“The national overdose epidemic is a five-alarm fire in public health, and we have to tackle this crisis concurrently with our COVID fight,” NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Dave A. Chokshi said in a statement. “Giving people a safe, supportive space will save lives and bring people in from the streets, improving life for everyone involved. Overdose prevention centers are a key part of broader harm reduction.”
Supporters say the facilities save lives by recognizing the reality of drug use and providing a place where users are watched for signs of overdoses, while opponents see the sites as a moral failure that essentially sanctions people harming themselves.
A few unofficial facilities have operated in New York City for some time, allowing drug users a monitored place to partake – and they already exist in Canada, Australia and Europe, the Associated Press reports.
Last month, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a bill introduced by Gustavo Rivera – a Democrat state senator from the Bronx – that decriminalized the possession and sale of hypodermic needles and syringes.
Following that, the New York Police Department, in a memo obtained by the New York Post, issued a directive to commanders stating that “effective immediately, members of the service should not take any enforcement action against any individual who possesses a hypodermic needle, even when it contains residue of a controlled substance.”
The bill “was passed under the guise of compassion, but it’s one of the least compassionate bills I’ve seen come across the legislature in a long time,” State Sen. Andrew Lanza, a Republican representing Staten Island, told the newspaper at the time. “There is nothing compassionate about telling people to keep doing something that is going to kill them.”
Nationwide, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there were more than 93,300 overdose deaths in 2020, up nearly 30% from the prior year’s number.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.