Some lawmakers say that a growing opioid epidemic reflects need for ‘safe injection’ sites

Photo Courtesy of Vancouver Coastal Health, an organization that believes safe injection sites for drug addicts help prevent people from transmitting infectious diseases, encourage marginalized people to access health care services, including primary care and addiction treatment, and reduce the number of injections taking place on the street. A bill to authorize safe injection sites in New York is currently in the Assembly Health Committee.

As a way to keep needles out of public spaces, and to prevent overdose deaths, Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal and 18 co-sponsors are advocating for a bill that would provide safe injection facilities where opioid drug abusers can safely “use” in New York state.

Staff members at these facilities would provide sterile injection supplies, collect used hypodermic needles and syringes, and teach patients about safe consumption practices. Patients will also be able to access referrals to addiction treatment, job training, and other social services.

These sites are a “safe place (for drug abusers) to do what they were going to do anyway,” according to Assemblywoman Diana Richardson, D-Brooklyn, one of the co-sponsors of the bill (A.8534).

If passed, the legislation would allow community based organizations to construct safer consumption sites for addicts and make them part of a more comprehensive program that teaches health practices and job skills.

The legislators pushing the bill say new injection sites will very rarely be newly constructed, instead they are more likely to be incorporated into existing syringe exchange sites.

“The opioid epidemic has New York state on the ropes, and we have an obligation to hit back with the most powerful tools in the harm reduction arsenal,” said Assemblywoman Rosenthal, D-Manhattan, the chair of the Committee on Alcohol and Drug Abuse.

The effects of the opioid epidemic on New York state cannot be overstated. The bill memo notes that in 2014, more than 1,000 New Yorkers died from opioid overdoses — nearly four times the number of opioid overdoses recorded in 2005. Hospitals across New York had more than 37,000 opioid related outpatient visits and 75,000 opioid related inpatient admissions in 2014.

Rosenthal has thus far led the charge for the creation of safer consumption spaces by sponsoring the bill, but other Assembly members and advocacy groups have quickly backed her proposition. Present at a recent press event in Albany ti unveil the bill were leaders from Vocal-NY and The New York State Drug Policy Alliance.

The bill is co-sponsored by democratic Assembly members from diverse geographic regions. At the press conference, Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, and Health Chair Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, spoke at length concerning the safety and necessity of safer consumption sites.

Such sites already exist in New York City, although in an unofficial capacity. The Washington Corner Heights Project operates similarly to how a safer consumption space is planned to operate, the only difference being that instead of being able to use in the open, drug addicts would go into an available bathroom. While someone is in the bathroom, a trained medical practitioner waits outside, making sure that the addict does not overdose. “We have a civil responsibility to do what we can and prevent these deaths,” said Liz Evans, the Director of the Washington Heights Project.

According to the bill, there are approximately 100 similar programs operating in at least 66 cities in nine countries, including Germany, Spain and Canada. The first site was constructed in Bern, Switzerland in 1986, and since then the model has spread across Europe.

“There has never been a single death at any safer consumption site,” Rosenthal said.

In its current form, the bill does not specify where funding would come from for the construction of safer consumption sites.

“Because the opioid epidemic is a public health emergency of the highest order, we are hopeful that both state and local funding will be made available to support this proven harm reduction method,” Rosenthal said.

The bill is currently in the Assembly Health Committee. There is no Senate sponsor.