New Mexico lawmakers are working to pass a bill to open safe consumption sites (SCS, also known as overdose prevention centers) in the state. If successful, it would make New Mexico just the third jurisdiction in the United States to authorize this approach to saving the lives of people who use drugs.
State Representatives Tara Lujan and Dayan Hochman-Vigil, both Democrats, introduced House Bill 263 to create an “Overdose Prevention Program.” On February 20, the House’s Health & Human Services Committee voted 7-3 to advance the bill—with all Democrats in favor and all Republicans opposed. It will now go to the Judiciary Committee, and ultimately must pass both chambers and the governor’s desk if it’s to become law. The legislative session ends on March 18.
Recent history suggests the bill will progress, but it could still face an uphill battle to become law. Just a couple years ago, in March 2021, the House passed a different SCS bill with bipartisan support. But it died in the Senate. Then, as now, both chambers were Democrat-controlled. Former Rep. Deborah Armstrong (D), who sponsored that bill, said that the state Department of Health under Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) had shown interest in SCS.
“Gov. Lujan Grisham hasn’t yet come out to say she’s going to sign the bill.”
Emily Kaltenbach, the longserving New Mexico state director for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), expressed caution. “We know there’s been a lot of interest by Department of Health staff in both the harm reduction program and policy department, but that doesn’t mean the governor’s office is fully in support,” she told Filter. “I will say Governor Lujan Grisham did send a delegation to Vancouver early on in her first term, so she’s very aware and knowledgeable about overdose prevention programs. She hasn’t yet come out to say she’s going to sign the bill.”
Under the new bill, the health department would be responsible for overseeing the centers, and would make rules for what equipment and resources they would provide to participants. While not required, the bill asks the department to “consider” allowing health care and other service providers to host SCS on their property, and allowing mobile services to reach people by vehicle.
“There has been some interest expressed by harm reduction providers or syringe service programs, some interest from supportive housing providers,” Kaltenbach said. “I did have a conversation with a hospital association—they haven’t formally endorsed this bill but they’re interested in learning more.”
New Mexico is being hit hard by the overdose crisis. According to CDC data, there were about 50 overdose deaths per 100,000 residents in 2021—placing the state among the 10 worst impacted, with far more fatalities per capita than its neighbors.
SCS permit people to use their own drugs on site, with trained peers and staff on hand to intervene in case of overdose. The facilities additionally provide key harm reduction resources and connections to other services. Close to 200 authorized SCS of different kinds now operate in 14 countries around the world. No one has ever died of overdose at any of them, and the sites unequivocally save lives, as much research has shown.
People who visit the centers should expect to find “a safe and hygienic space to administer and consume previously obtained controlled substances.”
Under HB263, New Mexico would create an advisory committee—including representatives from the attorney general’s office, state police, various health department officials and “other persons or representatives as chosen by the secretary of health”—to develop policies and procedures for evaluating the new centers, and collect data on their impact on overdose numbers. There is no explicit mention of including people who use drugs on this committee.
People who visit the centers should expect to find “a safe and hygienic space to administer and consume previously obtained controlled substances under the supervision of personnel trained in overdose reversal,” the bill states.
The centers would not, of course, provide drugs. But they would provide sterile syringes, cookers, drug-checking devices and other tools to facilitate safer drug use. And participants would receive information on how to prevent HIV and hepatitis B and C transmissions and avoid overdose. They could also be referred to substance use disorder treatment on request. All staff members and volunteers working in the centers would be immune from arrest and prosecution on drug charges, as long as they followed the state’s rules.
In February 2022, Gov. Lujan Grisham signed into law another bill (also sponsored by Reps. Lujan and Hochman-Vigil) that allows the health department and other organizations statewide to hand out fentanyl test strips. Going back further, in 1997 New Mexico was among the first states to approve syringe service programs, under Gov. Gary Johnson (R).
The Legislative Finance Committee estimates that HB263’s Overdose Prevention Program would cost the state about $284,000 over three years. The opioid-involved overdose crisis was estimated to cost New Mexico over $3.8 billion in 2017, when including health care, criminal-legal system and lost productivity costs.
In June 2021, Rhode Island made history as the first state to authorize an SCS pilot program, but has yet to open any sites. Months later, in November 2021, New York City opened the first two authorized SCS in the nation, run by OnPoint NYC. Within a matter of weeks the two sites, in East Harlem and Washington Heights, were accessed thousands of times and averted dozens of overdoses. They averted over 650 overdoses in their first year.
Other cities or states have come close to opening SCS without making it.
Other cities or states have come close to opening SCS without making it. Last year, California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) vetoed a bill passed by lawmakers that would have opened pilot SCS centers in three cities—which had already agreed to do so. Newsom’s veto came despite his past expression of support SCS, and was attributed by many observers to a political calculation based on his presidential ambitions.
In Philadelphia, meanwhile, the nonprofit Safehouse has fought a political and legal battle for years to open an SCS. A Trump-appointed federal prosecutor sued the organization in 2019, and the battle has continued in the courts ever since. The Biden administration inherited the legal case, but has repeatedly delayed a resolution and avoided taking a public position on the issue.
Photograph of an overdose prevention center in New York by Helen Redmond
The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, previously received a restricted grant from DPA to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.