Only a few weeks after opening, supervised injection sites in New York City have potentially saved dozens of lives, leading city leaders to call on the Biden administration to authorize the use of similar harm reduction programs nationwide.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city’s health department announced on November 30 that the nation’s first publicly recognized overdose prevention centers (OPCs) had commenced operations in the city. Also commonly known as supervised injection sites, OPCs offer people a safe place to consume illicit drugs under the supervision of staff trained to intervene in the event of an overdose.
Other services including clean needle exchange, HIV testing and referrals to addiction treatment programs are often commonly available at supervised injection sites.
De Blasio, who has been calling for an OPC pilot program since 2018, noted that more than 2,000 people died of a drug overdose in New York City in 2020, the highest number since reporting began in 2000. Nationwide, more than 90,000 people died of an overdose in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the worst year ever recorded.
Supervised Injection Sites Save Lives
Internationally, supervised injection sites have been saving lives for decades. Research over 30 years at more than 100 such facilities has proven the efficacy of such programs. No overdose deaths have ever been recorded at a supervised injection site, and research has also shown that the sites reduce public drug use, litter from syringes and drug-related crime in surrounding neighborhoods.
“After exhaustive study, we know the right path forward to protect the most vulnerable people in our city, and we will not hesitate to take it,” de Blasio said in a statement at the time. “Overdose Prevention Centers are a safe and effective way to address the opioid crisis. I’m proud to show cities in this country that after decades of failure, a smarter approach is possible.”
Council Member Mark Levine, chair of the City Council Health Committee, said that “NYC has taken historic action against the mounting crisis of opioid deaths with the opening of the nation’s first overdose prevention centers.”
“This strategy is proven to save lives, and is desperately needed at a moment when fatalities are rising fast,” Levine added. “I applaud the city as well as the providers who offer these lifesaving services for this bold approach to stopping this crisis.”
The city’s OPCs are operated by outreach and education group New York Harm Reduction Educators, which has opened two supervised injection sites at existing facilities in Harlem and Washington Heights. As of December 14, only two weeks into the program, the two sites had registered 350 participants and staff had already reversed 43 overdoses, according to a report from WNYC/Gothamist.
City Leaders Seek Support from Biden Administration
The success of New York’s OPCs has led a group of city leaders to call on the administration of President Joe Biden to support federal authorization of supervised injection sites nationwide. Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, it is illegal to operate, own or rent a location for the purpose of using illegal drugs.
In an op-ed published on December 15, New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Dave A. Chokshi, Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance called on Biden to provide legal protection for OPCs to open across the country.
They noted that in April, New York had joined the cities of San Francisco, Oakland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Somerville, Massachusetts, in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, asking the Justice Department to deprioritize enforcement of federal drug laws against supervised injection sites. But so far, no response has been received from federal officials.
The civic leaders also noted that Biden had recently become the first president to include harm reduction in his drug policy priorities and said that New York’s OPCs could be a model for the nation. Under the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress in March, $30 million was appropriated to state, local and tribal governments and organizations for overdose prevention and harm reduction services.
“It is time to embrace bold strategies in the face of public health crises, even if they may seem radical at first,” they wrote in the BuzzFeed News op-ed. “Thirty years ago, in the midst of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, New York City activists started one of the first syringe service programs in the country and, as a result, reduced HIV transmission among people who inject drugs, averting countless deaths.”
“We urge the Biden administration to endorse overdose prevention centers, empowering state and local jurisdictions to fully leverage their resources and authority to build healthier and safer cities, towns and communities,” the civic leaders concluded.