On November 30, New York City authorized two safe consumption sites to begin operations as soon as possible. The decision, a hard-fought victory for harm reduction advocates, makes them the first government-sanctioned overdose prevention centers, as they are also known, to open in the United States.
“New York City has led the nation’s battle against COVID-19, and the fight to keep our community safe doesn’t stop there,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a press statement. “After exhaustive study, we know the right path forward to protect the most vulnerable people in our city. And we will not hesitate to take it.”
In the past few weeks, there have been reports that de Blasio—perhaps eyeing a gubernatorial run—would make good on a longtime promise to launch a pilot program for safe consumption sites (SCS). But that bid endlessly stalled without approval from the governor’s office under former Governor Andrew Cuomo. De Blasio will depart as the city’s mayor by the new year. But Eric Adams, the incoming mayor, has signaled his support for SCS. And with district attorneys and police also reportedly onboard, the sites’ operations should be protected.
A pair of nonprofits—New York Harm Reduction Educators (NYHRE) and the Washington Heights Corner Project—are merging to create a new organization, OnePoint NYC, which will operate the sites in East Harlem and Washington Heights. There, people will be able to obtain sterile syringes and other safer-use supplies, access treatment options and other services, and bring their own drugs to use, with trained staff and naloxone on hand.
The two sites already run syringe service programs. Some harm reduction programs in the city have also been effectively operating SCS without government approval.
In the national context, New York City’s move arrives as overdose deaths have hit record highs during the coronavirus pandemic. Recent data showed that more than 100,000 people in the United States died during a 12-month period between April 2020 and April 2021, amid an increasingly adulterated illicit drug supply.
The Biden administration has indicated broad acceptance of harm reduction approaches to drug use, without, however, taking an explicit stance on SCS. Despite numerous other jurisdictions’ attempts to get similar programs off the ground—Rhode Island made history by passing a bill in the summer to authorize an SCS pilot program—none have yet gone as far as New York City.
“This is a watershed milestone in the fight to end overdose deaths in New York,” Melissa Moore, the director of civil systems reform at the Drug Policy Alliance, who previously led the DPA’s work in the state, said in a statement. “If we want to save lives, reduce criminalization, and curb racial disparities, we need comprehensive, innovative, and forward-thinking approaches like Overdose Prevention Centers.”
As DPA notes, approximately 120 sanctioned SCS already operate in 10 countries around the world, and “over 100 evidence-based, peer-reviewed studies have consistently proven the positive impacts of supervised consumption services.” The organization lists some of these demonstrated benefits as follows:
* Increasing entry into substance use disorder treatment
* Reducing the amount and frequency that clients use drugs
* Reducing public disorder and public injecting while increasing public safety
* Reducing HIV and Hepatitis C risk behavior (i.e. syringe sharing, unsafe sex)
* Successfully managing frequent on-site overdoses and reducing drug-related overdose death rates (there has not been a single overdose fatality at any SCS worldwide)
* Saving costs due to a reduction in disease, overdose deaths, and need for emergency medical services
* Increasing the delivery of medical and social services
Photographs of the NYHRE site by Helen Redmond
DPA previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.