Pressure Mounts on NY Gov. Cuomo to Authorize Safe Consumption Sites

October 10, 2019

New York safe consumption site (SCS) advocates have been fueled by last week’s landmark decision in Philadelphia, when Judge Gerald McHugh ruled that Safehouse, a nonprofit plans to open the nation’s first sanctioned SCS, would not be violating federal law.

On the day of that decision, New York harm reduction group VOCAL-NY released a statement calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo to take action to facilitate overdose prevention centers, as they’re also known, in the state.

“Today, US District Judge Gerald A. McHugh ruled in support of Safehouse, dispelling the legal myths and rhetoric the Trump administration weaponized against these evidence-based public health interventions,” said Jasmine Budnella, VOCAL’s drug policy coordinator. “With over 20,000 overdose deaths under Governor Cuomo’s tenure, his legacy will be marked by his choice to either stand with New Yorkers or stand in the way of their survival. Every day that we wait on his approval, the Governor has blood on his hands.”

New York City has already proposed a plan to open four SCS. It was endorsed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in May 2018. The facilities would be housed within existing syringe service centers. But for over a year the plan has been delayed because of Governor Cuomo’s failure to authorize it. The NYC Mayor’s office confirmed to Gothamist it cannot move forward until the program is authorized by the Governor. Cuomo’s Department of Health is conducting a mandatory review of the proposal. 

“We’re ready to go, but Cuomo has not let this move forward,” Mike Selick, a training and policy manager at the Harm Reduction Coalition, told Filter. “The Safehouse ruling shows there is no legal reason stopping us from doing this. The only reason we haven’t already started yet is because Cuomo is not letting his Department of Health approve it. We’ve already lost a lot of time; this pilot program would be finishing up at this time if it had been allowed to move forward initially.”

Selick said that existing harm reduction programs stand ready to rapidly convert into SCS if the city’s pilot is approved. “These centers already have staff and supplies and trust within their communities,” he said. “Some centers may need to construct or renovate a new space for this. There is money put aside for these operations⁠—but that can’t happen until the program gets green-lit by the state.”

VOCAL-NY has also put pressure on Mayor de Blasio to proceed with the pilot even without the Governor’s approval. “We are continuing to demand his full-throated support for overdose prevention centers,” Jeremy Saunders, VOCAL’s co-executive director, told Filter. “We should not even have to wait for the governor; our mayor should be bold and say he will take the steps Philadelphia is taking and we will do this.”

The number of overdose deaths in New York City decreased slightly last year (by 3 percent). But at 20.5 deaths per 100,000 residents, the rate is still nearly double the rate from 2012, and 1,444 lives were needlessly lost in 2018. The most common substance involved was fentanyl. SCS are proven to reduce mortality—in large part through having trained staff or volunteers ready to use naloxone.

The demands are coming not just from activists, but from state lawmakers in Cuomo’s own party.

After Judge McHugh’s decision last week, New York Senator and Health Committee Chair Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx) said the state must lead the way on SCS. “With this ruling, we know that the federal government cannot prevent us from moving forward,” he said. “These centers are not about enabling people to use drugs. They are about treating drug abuse disorders as the public health issue they are.”

Image courtesy of Harm Reduction Coalition.

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is Filter's staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it's actually alright. He's also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter's editorial fellow.

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