Advocates Call for Comprehensive Response following Sharp Increases in Drug Overdose Deaths in NYC

Press Release August 8, 2016
Media Contact

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<p>Matt Curtis, 646-234-9062, [email protected]<br />
Kassandra Frederique, 646-209-0374, [email protected]</p>

New York, NY –Today’s release of 2015 drug overdose mortality data from the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) shows the devastation of overdose in New York City, where nearly 7,200 people lost their lives to the epidemic in the past 10 years. 2015 saw the highest death rate and absolute number of overdose deaths since the 1990s—including large increases in deaths in the Bronx, which has an overdose death rate that is double that of Queens, Manhattan, and Brooklyn and the largest number of overdose deaths, and a 51 percent increase in overdose deaths among Latinos citywide from 2014 to 2015.

SIF NYC, a coalition of 35 organizations representing healthcare providers and advocates, renewed its call for using every available tool to save lives, including through the authorization of supervised injection facilities (SIFs) and other safer drug consumption services. SIFs have been shown to sharply reduce fatal overdoses as well as reduce HIV and viral hepatitis transmission and public disorder. The coalition also applauded the Mayor, the City Council, and DOHMH for undertaking a series of targeted actions and new funding initiatives to address overdose.

“We can’t sit back any longer while our friends and loved ones die when we know there is more we could be doing, right now, to protect those most at risk,” said Shantae Owens, a member of the advocacy group VOCAL New York who described his own experience injecting heroin in unsafe, unsanitary places while homeless in a recent New York Daily News essay. “The sooner New York allows SIFs, the more lives we’ll save.”

As lawmakers give much-needed attention to the overdose epidemic—now the leading cause of accidental death both statewide and nationally—the conversation in New York State has more often than not focused on Staten Island and suburban communities. But the huge increases in overdose deaths displayed in the 2015 mortality data show that the Bronx and other New York City boroughs are struggling mightily with opioid use and need to be included in conversations at the state level about grappling with this public health crisis and given adequate resources.

"Each death from drug overdose is a heartbreaking, completely avoidable tragedy. The evidence is clear: safe injection facilities save lives. We must end the war on drug users, and New York City must use evidence to guide our response to this public health crisis," said Annette Gaudino of the Treatment Action Group.

“Today's release of overdose mortality data reveals a devastating pattern of ignoring the health care needs of poor and marginalized communities especially in the Bronx and within Latino neighborhoods,” said Juan Cartagena, President and General Counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF. “If compassionate care is the new paradigm for addressing opioid drug use then we need to see it manifested in these marginalized communities. Now! Until then, compassion takes on a white, privileged hue while brown and black users face continued punishment under a failed law enforcement approach. This has to change.”

As stakeholders around the state are demanding that we prioritize saving lives and recognizing that “we can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” New York State must continue to shift its approach away from the failed policies of the war on drugs to evidence¬based drug policies that prioritize public health over costly criminal justice strategies that produce disastrous health outcomes and major racial disparities in law enforcement.

Drug use and addiction in New York demands a bipartisan response that takes all concerns and communities into account. Further, systemic changes are needed to address the persistent stigma of drug use, the dearth of education among providers and agencies regarding addiction and harm reduction, policies that exacerbate racial disparities, and ongoing barriers to care that continue to take a devastating toll in lost lives.

"For nearly 50 years we've provided high-quality, affirming healthcare to LGBTQ people, many of whom faced stigma in mainstream healthcare environments," said Kimberleigh Joy Smith, MPA, Senior Director of Community Health Planning and Policy at Callen-Lorde Community Health Center. "We see that stigma mirrored in how people who use drugs are treated in our society. We have no doubt that supervised drug consumption services would save lives and allow us to provide better care to the communities we serve."

“Our borough shoulders one-third of overdose deaths citywide, double that of Manhattan, Queens, or Brooklyn. We’ve known for more than a decade that the Bronx is the battleground against overdose death. What we’re seeing now is that neighborhoods with historically low rates of overdose are experiencing an increase. We’re also seeing higher rates of fatal overdose among young people,” stated Jose M. Davila, President & CEO of BOOM!Health. “2016 cannot be another year of business as usual. We’re calling on public and private partners, community members, and legislators to fully invest in harm reduction.”

“We’re at a moment when we need to make the decision to discard the draconian policies that shame people who are in need of help. New York is taking steps to save lives and the data show this is coming not a moment too soon,” said Kassandra Frederique, New York state director at the Drug Policy Alliance. “It is time to center health-based strategies that prioritize people’s health.”

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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