De Blasio’s office unveils plan for opioid consumption sites in NYC

Photo courtesy of the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority

After repeated calls to action from state legislators and drug policy groups, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio has made the decision to bring safer consumption sites into the city.

“After a rigorous review of similar efforts across the world,” said De Blasio on Twitter, “and after careful consideration of public health and safety expert views, we believe overdose prevention centers will save lives and get more New Yorkers into the treatment they need to beat this deadly addiction.”

New York is currently in the throes of an opioid epidemic — one that, according to De Blasio “has killed more people in our city than car crashes and homicides combined.”

According to a study on the feasibility of safer consumption sites in the five boroughs by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, “New York city has experienced a 166 percent increase in overdose death since 2010, reaching an all-time high in 2017 with a provisional 1,441 confirmed fatalities. Over 80 percent of these deaths involved opioids.”

Safer consumption sites, known also as safe injection facilities, are designated spaces where opioid drug users can inject themselves with pre-obtained drugs under medical supervision. Users are provided with clean needles and social services workers are on staff to try and steer those suffering from addiction away from further use. Safer consumption sites are already in use across Europe and in Canada. There has never been a recorded death by overdose in a safer consumption site.

Facilities would be established in the neighborhoods of Gowanus, Midtown West, Washington Heights and Longwood. A representative of the mayor said in an email that “These sites were recommended to us by New York City harm reduction advocates, are currently needle exchanges, and can operate an overdose prevention center without City funding.”

De Blasio’s plan would only affect New York City. And although the mayor’s blessing is a big step forward, the Big Apple is still far from cutting the ribbon on its first site.

The Mayor’s Office would have to get the approval of City Council members responsible for land use in their respective districts. Councilman Rafael Salamanca, whose district includes the neighborhood of Longwood, announced his support, saying “Creating safe injection sites means saving lives and as council member for a district that has been greatly affected by the opioid crisis for decades, I support this initiative.”

The former Chair of the Council’s Health Committee and the sitting councilman for Hell’s Kitchen, Corey Johnson, echoed the same support. In an official statement, he said “The Council has been a leader in the push to bring these centers to New York City, and we thank Mayor de Blasio for taking this brave, important and necessary step. These sites will save lives and connect addicts with treatment options and trained professionals that could lead them to recovery.”

The Mayor’s Office would also need approval from the three District Attorneys that preside over the four neighborhoods where safer consumption sites would be made: Cyrus Vance of Manhattan, Darcel Clark of the Bronx and Eric Gonzalez of Brooklyn. Only two out of the three DA’s affirmed their decision to allow for safer consumption sites to be built, with Darcel Clark remaining cautious and noncommittal thus far.

“I have met with New York City Health Department officials about this issue,” Clark said in an official statement. “I have not seen enough research or evidence to inform a decision about safe injection sites at this time, but I remain open-minded on the matter.”

However, DA Vance is clear on his position, saying “New Yorkers who are suffering and dying from opioids need bold public health interventions — not the heavy hand of the criminal justice system.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the mayor would need approval by the New York State Department of Health.

While both Democrats, the mayor and governor often butt heads, and the issue of safer consumption sites could prove to be divisive.

In an email, a representative of the DOH said that “The Department is reviewing the report. We of course support the mission of reducing opioid related deaths and have been studying multiple options for combating the opioid epidemic.”

According to the New York City study, the creation and support of the four planned safer consumption sites would “prevent up to 130 overdose deaths and save up to $7 million annually while connecting individuals at risk of overdose to a host of harm reduction, drug treatment and health care services.”

For those on the frontline of the opioid epidemic, working at syringe exchange facilities, the potential for safer consumption sites in New York City is a welcome and necessary step forward.

“Firstly, it’s exciting that he made that announcement, loads of people are dying, if it was something else something would have been done about it already,” said Mark Townsend, the interim director of syringe exchange programs for New York Harm Reduction Educators and The Corner Project.

However, Townsend believes there is more that should be done.

“There need to be locations in upper Manhattan, more locations in the Bronx, locations in Harlem. This is a widespread thing.”

Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, the chair of the Assembly Committee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, has been pushing to bring safer consumption sites to New York state, and she sees the mayor’s decision as a progressive step forwards.

“I look forward to partnering with the City and advocates on this bold and life-affirming endeavor,” said Rosenthal, “and to work to pass my legislation to bring safer consumption spaces to every corner of the state. Let’s start saving lives.”