Amid Growing Concerns about Overdose, Homelessness, and Public Drug Use, Advocates Launch Campaign for Supervised Injection Facilities in New York

Press Release September 30, 2015
Media Contact

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<p>Matt Curtis: 646-234-9062<br />
Julie Netherland: 212-613-8063</p>

New York City — Homelessness and public drug use are on the rise in New York, and accidental drug overdoses now kill more people than car accidents in the U.S. As the Mayor and Police Commissioner Bratton struggle to find solutions to these problems, advocates in New York are calling for effective public health solutions like those being used in cities throughout Europe and Canada. A coalition of public health and harm reduction groups, advocacy organizations, and NYC residents, named SIF NYC, is calling for the City to establish supervised injection facilities, a proven strategy to improve the health of people who do not have a safe place to inject, reduce overdose deaths, and link people to housing, healthcare, and drug treatment.

Last night, Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now! moderated a town hall discussion with more than 500 New Yorkers in attendance. A panel of international experts laid out the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting supervised injection facilities and explained how providing a safe and clean place for people to inject drugs and access services can solve a host of public health and public disorder problems. The panel included Senator Larry Campbell, former mayor of Vancouver, Canada; Werner Schneider, former drug czar of Frankfurt, Germany; Tony Trimingham, a psychotherapist in Sydney, Australia and founder of Family Drug Support Australia; and Liz Evans, who oversaw the establishment of the Insite supervised injection facility in Vancouver, Canada.

The panelists repeatedly focused on the devastation caused by doing nothing in the face of widespread poverty, racial and economic injustice, and the many ways such conditions intersect with drug use. In contrasting the positive impact of supervised injection facilities to the situation in New York, Liz Evans said, “Things have gone terribly wrong to get us to this point. It’s time to say to people who use drugs: Peace. The war is over.”

Former Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell said that while broad political and public support is essential, “in our city it was drug users who led us by the hand” to establish Insite in 2003, which has been rigorously evaluated and has the support of the vast majority of Vancouver residents. “So I have one piece of advice for people in New York, and especially drug users: Raise a little hell.”

Panelists detailed how the nearly 100 SIFs worldwide are part of a successful strategy to deal with public health and public disorder problems in cities throughout Europe and Canada. They also discussed research supporting the effectiveness of supervised injection facilities in reducing overdose deaths and infectious disease transmission, improving access to drug treatment and other health care for people who inject drugs, and reducing public disorder, including improperly discarded drug paraphernalia – all problems New York City is currently battling.

“We can do a better job addressing the health of people who use drugs, improving public health outcomes, and reducing overdose in New York,” said Julie Netherland, PhD, deputy state director at the Drug Policy Alliance. “We know what works. It’s time to listen to international experts and to the solid body of research supporting SIFs and implement them here in New York.”

A recent survey by the Injection Drug Users Health Alliance found that a majority of NYC syringe exchange participants reported having to inject in public spaces like parks, subway platforms, and restaurant bathrooms. Those who did were more than twice as likely to have overdosed in the past year and were four times more likely to have to reuse injection equipment, a key risk factor for disease transmission.

“Syringe exchange programs have demonstrated to be highly effective in preventing HIV and hepatitis C, connecting people who use drugs to life saving services. But it's not enough to provide someone the tools for safer injection, particularly when homelessness and fear of arrest are part of the daily life of people who use drugs,” said Taeko Frost, Executive Director of Washington Heights CORNER Project. “A more ecological approach would integrate supervised injection facilities to minimize risk and promote health for people who use drugs and their communities. New Yorkers need and deserve this evidence based, cost effective public health intervention at a time where we continue to see an increase in hepatitis C and overdose– it's the most pragmatic and responsible next step as a city."

National data suggest that public bathrooms are one of the most frequently used public injection locations in New York City, and 58% of business managers recently surveyed encountered drug use in their customer bathrooms in the past 6 months. Managers have also found discarded paraphernalia contaminated with blood in their bathrooms, putting both employees and customers at risk for blood –borne infections such as HIV and Hepatitis C. Encounters were recorded in all five boroughs with the most occurring in the South Bronx and East Harlem; neighborhoods with some of the highest drug overdose death rates in the city.

"A safe, clean place to inject would have allowed me to avoid abscesses and infections that have affected my health and would have made it much easier to deal with things I wanted to change about my drug use," said Paul Levine, a staff member at VOCAL New York who was forced to inject in public places during periods of homelessness in Brooklyn. "New York needs supervised injection facilities now, and the sooner it happens the more lives we'll save from overdose and disease."

SIFs are a notable a component of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Blueprint on Ending the AIDS Epidemic, which was developed by a task force of 63 leading experts and released earlier this year. Recently, a group of concerned service providers and public health groups formed SIF NYC, a coalition committed to establishing SIFs and other strategies to support the health, safety, and dignity of people who use drugs.

“It’s enraging how behind the curve New York is on this,” said Matt Curtis, policy director at VOCAL New York. “Scores of cities have used SIFs to save thousands of lives and millions of dollars, and to improve public order and safety in neighborhoods. New York has pursued harm reduction strategies since the 1990s but with a schizophrenic attachment to the failed drug war. It’s time to commit to the idea that people who use drugs are our family and friends and they deserve support, not punishment. The SIF NYC coalition is not going to take no for an answer.”

Support for SIFs has been growing in New York. Last night, more than 500 people turned out for the forum, the vast majority expressing their support for SIFs in NYC. Conversations about implementing SIFs in NYC are beginning among members of the New York City Council and other parts of government.

“Supervised injection facilities are a successful harm reduction strategy in cities across the world and are a critical facet of the Governor’s Ending the Epidemic Blueprint,” said Council Member Corey Johnson, chair of the Committee on Health. “I look forward to continuing the conversation on this and other innovative solutions to public drug use and overdose.”

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

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