New York City and New York state officials are embroiled in a debate over a proposal to open the city’s first supervised sites where intravenous drug users can inject heroin.
In early May, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to open four sites, to open after 6- to 12-months of community outreach and be operated as one-year pilot programs.
Two sites would be opened in Manhattan: at Housing Works, Midtown West, and at the Washington Heights Corner Project. Sites would also be located at VOCAL-NY in Gowanus, Brooklyn; and at St. Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction, Longwood, Bronx.
But New York City, which had 1,441 overdose deaths last year, is still facing some major obstacles before the plan can become a reality. Because of the laws against heroin and other drugs, the plan would have to win the support of several district attorneys in the city, and also the state Department of Health. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not said whether he would support legal injection sites.
As in other U.S. cities that have announced plans to open supervised injection sites – San Francisco, Philadelphia and Seattle – federal drug laws represent the most significant obstacle to opening the sites in New York City. While several supervised injection sites have been operating successfully in Canada and Europe, none have opened in the U.S.
The Overdose Prevention Centers would have trained staff onsite to administer medications, such as naloxone, to prevent fatal drug overdoses. They would also staff social workers who could counsel IV drug users, and try to get them into addiction treatment programs. The city would designate local nonprofit groups to finance and run the centers, including some service providers who already run needle exchange sites.
“After a rigorous review of similar efforts across the world, and after careful consideration of public health and safety expert views, we believe overdose prevention centers will save lives and get more New Yorkers into the treatment they need to beat this deadly addiction,” de Blasio said in a statement. Local groups who support supervised injection sites have been pressuring De Blasio and the city council members to approve the sites, and have staged demonstrations at city hall, leading to some arrests.
New York City’s Deputy Mayor, Herminia Palacio, sent a letter to New York State Health Commissioner Howard A. Zucker, asking him to authorize or license four injection sites. In his letter, Palacio pointed out that the commissioner has the authority to permit injection sites if they are part of a “research study.” He said a precedent was set back in the early 1990s, when the state health commissioner authorized needle exchanges, as part of an effort to reduce the spread of H.I.V. among intravenous drug users in the city.
The mayor’s office released a 148-page study by the city’s spelling out the potential benefits and risks of supervised injection centers.
The state health department said it plans to review the city’s request. “We, of course, support the mission of reducing opioid-related deaths and have been studying multiple options for combating the opioid epidemic,” spokesman Gary Holmes, said in an emailed statement to the New York Times.
In March, the mayor announced a $22 million annual investment to expand HealingNYC, the citywide plan to combat the opioid epidemic. This new investment will create peer intervention programs at more hospitals across the City, increase naloxone distribution and training on how to use this lifesaving drug, and connect more New Yorkers struggling with substance misuse to treatment. With this new investment, the City will spend a total of $60 million annually to reduce opioid overdose deaths.