Today, community members, leaders and lawmakers are holding press conferences across New York State to mark International Overdose Awareness Day (IOAD), honoring the countless New Yorkers who have died from preventable overdose.
As New Yorkers battled the pandemic, former Governor Cuomo demolished the already-fragile drug-user health infrastructure by withholding funds to critical harm reduction organizations, hindering their ability to provide lifesaving services when the need was greatest.
Harm reduction providers on the ground have fought with dwindling resources during COVID as hepatitis C rates have increased, a new HIV cluster emerged in Monroe County and overdose skyrocketed. Cuomo’s fearmongering and refusal to implement evidence-based solutions has been most detrimental to Black and Brown communities throughout the state.
This IOAD follows a year of unprecedented loss for New York’s harm reduction community. 2020’s overdose data illustrate the record escalation in deaths that we all knew was coming under the pandemic—more than 94,000 people lost across the country, more than 5,100 of them in New York State.
“I remember when we were losing someone every three hours to overdose. Then it was five. Then it was three. Now we’re losing someone every hour and 48 minutes,” Marilyn Reyes, a community leader with VOCAL-NY User’s Union and co-director of Peer Network of New York, told Filter. “It’s horrifying.”
Now, newly inaugurated Governor Kathy Hochul has the opportunity to immediately begin addressing the harms perpetuated by Cuomo’s administration, and to usher in a new era of healing for marginalized New Yorkers. We are calling on Hochul to sign the Overdose Prevention Package, and to authorize the state’s long-overdue pilot of safe consumption sites (SCS).
A Trio of Lifesaving Bills
Passed this legislative session, the Overdose Prevention Package comprises three long-overdue bills.
One of them, Senate Bill S1795, would expand access to medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD) within New York prisons and jails. Research clearly shows that any amount of incarceration increases the risk of fatal overdose, and the deadliest period for people with substance use disorder is the period immediately following release. Over the past two decades, fatal overdose inside prisons and jails across the country has increased by over 600 percent. There is no denying that the drug war’s tactics have only fueled harm and death—instead of care and resources.
“No one should be treated like an animal in a cage, like I was. Nothing about that experience was helpful for stabilizing my drug use.”
A second bill, Senate Bill S2523, would decriminalize the sale and possession of syringes for drug use.
“All of my arrests were for syringe possession, and when I was incarcerated I was forced into torturous withdrawal,” Ivette Chavez-Gonzalez, a leader of VOCAL-NY Users Union Buffalo Chapter and a Peer Outreach Worker at a harm reduction agency in Buffalo, told Filter.
“No one should be treated like an animal in a cage, like the way I was. And nothing, absolutely nothing, about that experience was helpful for stabilizing my drug use. I would always go back to using after getting out. If anything, it made it worse.”
A third bill, Senate Bill S649A, would remove the barrier of prior authorization for MOUD patients enrolled in Medicaid—a bill previously vetoed by Cuomo even as he signed a bill removing prior authorization for New Yorkers on private insurance. Hochul’s own nephew died of preventable overdose after being denied access to MOUD as a Medicaid patient.
All three bills now await Hochul’s signature.
Safe Consumption Sites
Infuriatingly, New Yorkers have also been kept waiting since 2018 for Cuomo to deliver on what was ultimately a false promise to implement the pilot for SCS (sometimes known as Overdose Prevention Centers) that had already been authorized for NYC by Mayor Bill de Blasio and was set to be expanded to Ithaca. In those three years alone, 12,807 New Yorkers died from preventable overdose.
“The numbers would not be this devastating if [Cuomo] had at least kept his word to approve the [SCS] pilots for our communities,” Reyes said.
Hochul could direct the New York State Department of Health commissioner to authorize the five proposed pilot sites today if she chose to.
“Governor Hochul is our final hope.”
“For 10 years, former Governor Cuomo treated us as expendable,” Terrell Jones, a community leader with VOCAL-NY User’s Union and Community Outreach and Advocacy Manager at New York Harm Reduction Educators, told Filter.
“Cuomo’s deadly neglect throughout his entire time in office, and throughout this past year in particular, has resulted in unprecedented trauma for those of us working in harm reduction, and those of us who are also survivors of the War on Drugs.”
Jones said he can’t walk a block in his South Bronx neighborhood without seeing a memorial to someone lost to overdose. The crisis has never felt more urgent than it does now.
“We cannot continue to wait and be fed false promises,” Jones said. “Myself and my community have already survived a lifetime of trauma due to racist drug war policies. There’s only so much we can take. Governor Hochul is our final hope.”
Photograph courtesy of Averie Cole