On June 29, simultaneous protests in Manhattan and Albany urged New York Governor Kathy Hochul (D) to use her executive action powers to authorize safe consumption sites, also known as overdose prevention centers (OPC), statewide.
This followed the state legislature’s recent failure to take such action. Assembly Bill 224, as Filter reported in May, would have authorized safe consumption sites (SCS) across New York. But the legislative session ended on June 2 without lawmakers passing it.
Currently, just two SCS operate legally anywhere in the United States. Both are in upper Manhattan, and run by the nonprofit OnPoint NYC. SCS, where people can use state-banned drugs with naloxone and trained staff and peers on hand, are proven to save lives. Demands for their rollout in New York come amid an unprecendented crisis of preventable deaths, with over 5,700 people estimated to have died of overdose in the state last year. In just six months, the OnPoint sites have averted over 300 overdoses.
“Right now in this moment, she’s perfectly positioned to do it.”
Could Gov. Hochul authorize these centers across New York with the stroke of a pen? Advocacy groups like VOCAL-NY, whose Users Union led the latest protests, say yes.
“She’s saying she’s aligned with harm reduction, but she’s yet to do a simple use of her executive powers to authorize OPC statewide,” Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard, VOCAL’s drug policy community organizer and a principal organizer of the protests, told Filter. “That’s what we’re demanding; right now in this moment, she’s perfectly positioned to do it.”
On June 28, Hochul won her primary election to secure the Democratic Party nomination for the governor’s race in November. She’s heavily favored to win the general election against Republican candidate Lee Zeldin (a sitting congressman who endorsed former President Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election).
Kuwabara Blanchard, who is a former Filter staff writer, explained that through executive action, Hochul would direct the state health department to create a program authorizing nonprofits or local health agencies to open SCS. They would likely have to meet basic public health requirements by having trained staff, sanitary supplies and connection to other supportive services.
But advocates are frustrated by Hochul’s inaction on SCS so far. “She claims she’s leading the country around keeping people safe from gun violence and ensuring safe access to abortion, yet she has nothing to say about keeping people safe from overdose and the toxic drug supply,” Kuwabara Blanchard said.
In Manhattan, drug-user advocates chanted, “No more drug war!” They held signs bearing the names of loved ones lost to overdose. The rally also invited people who have used OnPoint’s SCS services to share their experiences.
“I was part of the unsafe and unsanitary practices on the streets,” said Armando, “throwing needles, injecting in the corners; I did that, sorry to say. I don’t do it anymore. Why is that? Because I go to the OPC.”
Meanwhile, another group protested in Albany outside the governor’s mansion. Speakers stood behind a table laid out with safe-use supplies, and a bunch of flowers painted black.
“We are people,” said Luke Grandis, a VOCAL organizer. “[And] regardless of whether I am right now in my longterm remission from opioid dependency, or whether I’m the person when I was in the midst of my relapse who was using heroin and cocaine and fentanyl, I matter—and I deserve my life to be protected.”
“We need these everywhere and we need them now.”
New York advocates have been fighting for SCS for years. In 2018, former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio first endorsed creating SCS in the city. But former Governor Andrew Cuomo effectively blocked it. In August 2021, Cuomo resigned after investigators found he sexually harassed multiple women. Governor Hochul took over, and has since approved several harm reduction measures that Cuomo also blocked. Then in November, in the last weeks of his final term, Mayor de Blasio finally authorized the two SCS in Manhattan.
On the national stage, Rhode Island is expected to soon implement its own SCS pilot program, which it approved in 2021. In California, a bill to authorize an SCS pilot in several cities passed the state Senate and will soon be debated by the Assembly. And because of a Trump-era federal lawsuit against efforts to create an SCS in Philadelphia, it’s likely that the Biden administration will soon have to take a public stance on the issue, which it has so far avoided.
“Before I knew about overdose prevention centers, my mother overdosed in my arms,” said Mohammad X, a member of VOCAL-NY’s Users Union and OnPoint participant, who joined the protest in Manhattan.
“My brother passed away without him knowing what these spaces are. If they knew what OPCs were, maybe they’d still be here. We need these everywhere and we need them now.”
Photograph provided by VOCAL-NY.