Harm reduction advocates and workers, including members of VOCAL-New York, converged at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal in Manhattan on March 9. Braving snow, rain, wind and freezing cold, they protested a slew of bills they say would lead to increased deaths and stigmatization among people who use drugs—urging several federal politicians to stop their efforts to defund harm reduction in New York and nationwide.
Senators Joe Manchin (D) and Marco Rubio (R) recently introduced the Preventing Illicit Paraphernalia for Exchange Systems Act, or PIPES Act, in response to conservative outcry over supposed “crack pipes” provision that prompted a recent Biden administration climbdown.
GOP Congressmember Nicole Malliotakis, representing Staten Island and southern Brooklyn, co-sponsored the bill when it was introduced into the House.
The PIPES Act “would basically gut this new harm reduction grant.”
If passed, it would block federal funds from being used to buy pipes and syringes, two tools that harm reduction organizations provide to reduce health risks for people who use drugs, except for programs approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) grants are expected to provide $30 million in funding for harm reduction programs. But the PIPES Act “would basically gut this new harm reduction grant,” Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard, VOCAL-NY’s drug policy community organizer and a speaker at the protest, told Filter. She added that the pipes, in particular, are targeted due to racist stereotypes.
“It would really be a blow because for the first time in 30 years, the federal government has agreed to pay for syringes and needles that needle exchanges distribute,” continued Kuwabara Blanchard, who is a former Filter staff writer. Opponents “see it as this ethical, moral line that they won’t cross.”
The protestors, who were joined by Brittany Ramos de Barros, a congressional candidate running against Rep. Malliotakis in the June 2022 Democratic primary, also spoke out against another of Malliotakis’s bills, dubbed the “Defund de Blasio’s Injection Sites Act of 2021.”
Prior to leaving office, then-New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio greenlit the creation of overdose prevention centers, also known as safe consumption sites (SCS), where people can use drugs with trained staff and naloxone on hand.
Two sites opened at the end of last year, in East Harlem and the Washington Heights neighborhood. Run by the nonprofit OnPoint NYC, whose executive director, Sam Rivera (pictured above), was another speaker at the protest, these are the first two sanctioned SCS in the United States. As of mid-February, after only three months of operation, the sites reported that they had averted around 150 overdoses and served nearly 800 people.
“There is a real fear that, if certain groups start kicking up a fuss around it … they could move to go back on the promise and shut down the New York City sites.”
While New York’s new mayor, Eric Adams, has publicly supported the sites, Kuwabara Blanchard noted that “law and order” politicians may stir up fear about them, and that it’s a “very precarious” situation.
“There is a real fear that, if certain groups start kicking up a fuss around it and try to shut it down, they could move to go back on the promise and shut down the New York City sites,” she said. “They’re framing it as an impermissible activity, something that the federal government should be denouncing. They’re building opposition by saying that no funds should be given to overdose prevention centers.”
VOCAL-NY Users Union leader and Staten Island resident Asia Betancourt also spoke at the protest.
Highlighting that one person dies of an overdose every four hours in New York City, the protesters demanded an end to such opposition. Rep. Malliotakis did not respond to Filter’s request for comment by publication time.
VOCAL-NY is currently backing several other legislative efforts in the state, including the Safer Consumption Services Act, and the decriminalization of buprenorphine and low-level drug possession.
Photographs courtesy of VOCAL-NY
Corrections, March 10: This article was edited to correct Rep. Malliotakis’s role in the PIPES Act and note the exception for CDC-approved programs under its provisions.