New York Governor Kathy Hochul, appointed in August, has already done more for harm reduction than her disgraced predecessor Andrew Cuomo did in 10 years. On October 7, she signed into law two bills that decriminalize syringes and guarantee access to medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD) in jails and prisons.
“Today is a leap forward for addressing overdose in New York,” said Melissa Moore, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, in a statement. “For decades, Drug Policy Alliance, VOCAL-NY and our allies have been fighting to remove criminal penalties for syringes and expand safe syringe access as a public health tool.”
“Governor Hochul is also charting a new way forward by signing the bill to expand access to medications for opioid use disorder for people in jails and prisons across New York,” she continued. “We believe that incarceration is not the solution to a person’s problematic drug use, and people who are struggling with drug use should receive medical care.”
“We applaud Governor Hochul for taking these long-awaited steps to address preventable overdose deaths and look forward to further swift action.”
Of the two bills signed, Senate Bill 2523, the latest version of which was approved by New York’s legislature in June, decriminalizes syringes by no longer classifying them as “drug paraphernalia.” Previously, possession of both sterile and used syringes was a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and fines of up to $1,000. Thousands of people throughout the state were arrested each year for syringe possession.
Besides criminalizing people unjustly, this created a major public health risk: It discouraged people from seeking and distributing sterile syringes, which help prevent HIV and hepatitis C transmissions. It also made people hesitate to carry used needles, with trace amounts of drugs inside, making it less likely that they are properly disposed of.
Senate Bill 1795, which also passed the legislature earlier this year, guarantees that all jails and prisons will provide medications like buprenorphine and methadone. Correctional facilities in New York have long denied incarcerated people access to these lifesaving medications, sparking legal challenges in response.
Besides the cruelty of denying an incarcerated person in withdrawal access to MOUD, the impact of jails’ and prisons’ inaction has been deadly. Overdose is the leading cause of death for people just released from prison or jail; people with lowered tolerance after a period of enforced abstinence are especially vulnerable.
A third crucial bill approved by the legislature has not yet been signed, however. Senate Bill 649A would prohibit Medicaid from requiring prior authorization for people to access MOUD. Prior authorization requirements allow insurance companies to delay people’s prescriptions pending review, and potentially to deny access. Gov. Hochul’s nephew died after he was unable to access MOUD because of the high barriers facing people on Medicaid, and she referenced her loss in her inaugural address. Harm reduction advocates are still calling for Hochul to sign the bill, which Cuomo vetoed in January 2020.
Like too many New Yorkers, I know what it’s like to lose a loved one to addiction—there’s an empty chair at our family table where my nephew, Michael, should be. This is personal for me. Today we’re taking action to combat the opioid epidemic and offer New Yorkers hope. Thread⬇️
— Kathy Hochul (@GovKathyHochul) October 7, 2021
Nonetheless, Hochul’s actions on October 7 show she is a very different public servant to her predecessor, who repeatedly lied and obstructed to block drug policy reform. The new legislation will reduce criminalization and save lives.
“We applaud Governor Hochul for taking these long-awaited steps to address preventable overdose deaths and look forward to further swift action as New York grapples with record-high overdose death rates,” Moore said.
Photograph of Governor Hochul, DPA Executive Director Kassandra Frederique and DPA New York State Director Melissa Moore courtesy of the Drug Policy Alliance.
DPA previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.