These Centers Are Possible Thanks to Years of Advocacy by People Impacted by Overdose, Community Advocates, and the Drug Policy Reform Movement
New York, NY - Today, Mayor de Blasio announced that New York City will be moving forward to establish pilot Overdose Prevention Centers, the first sanctioned opening of such facilities in the United States. The move follows new CDC provisional overdose data showing more than 100,000 deaths during the first year of COVID-19. The dramatic increase in overdose deaths during the pandemic illustrates the urgent need to implement proven public health approaches over criminalization and other failed enforcement tactics of the past. Mayor de Blasio’s endorsement of overdose prevention centers is bolstered by support from mayor-elect Eric Adams and New York state Attorney General Letitia James, signaling broad support for this lifesaving public health intervention.
Today’s announcement follows years of advocacy by the Drug Policy Alliance, along with community-based advocates, people who are directly impacted by overdose, faith leaders, medical professionals, treatment providers, housing service providers, City Council members, and state elected officials who have called for New York City to implement safer consumption spaces as a proven public health intervention to save lives.
Statement from Kassandra Frederique, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance:
“The latest numbers are heartbreaking and further proof that criminalization and racially-motivated enforcement-first approaches to drugs are not working, and in fact, are fueling the overdose crisis by pushing people into risky situations, making the drug supply unregulated and unsafe, and wasting resources on punishment instead of harm reduction and other health-services proven to save lives. We at Drug Policy Alliance have been at the forefront of advocating for Overdose Prevention Centers in the United States as a critical component of curbing the overdose crisis. We began our campaign in New York in 2015, when there was little support among the public and lawmakers. It’s been a long and tough fight, but the day is finally here and the need is more urgent than ever.
“We applaud Mayor de Blasio for showing leadership in fighting deadly overdoses in New York City by moving to establish Overdose Prevention Center pilots amid the worst-ever year for overdose deaths in New York. While other politicians have pointed to the lack of clarity in the Department of Justice’s position on overdose prevention centers as an excuse for inaction, the Mayor has clearly stated that saving lives is more important to New York City."
Statement from Melissa Moore, Drug Policy Alliance Director of Civil Systems Reform who previously led the organization’s New York work:
“This is a watershed milestone in the fight to end overdose deaths in New York. If we want to save lives, reduce criminalization, and curb racial disparities, we need comprehensive, innovative, and forward-thinking approaches like Overdose Prevention Centers. New York is in a unique position to step up and implement innovative drug policies rooted in science, compassion, and public health as we did with syringe exchanges before. It is the time for New York to lead the way in implementing drug policies that can succeed and we applaud the immediate establishment of Overdose Prevention Centers in New York City.”
Other organizations that endorse Overdose Prevention Centers include the American Medical Association, American Public Health Association, the New York State Academy of Family Physicians, amfAR, the International Narcotics Control Board, and New York Academy of Medicine.
The announcement on Overdose Prevention Centers comes four years after the NYC Council commissioned a feasibility study to assess the feasibility and impact of New York City having a program that provides a safe, clean space that can provide support to high-risk, vulnerable New Yorkers and will help prevent drug overdoses and disease transmissions.
Since then, New Yorkers have worked together to implement lifesaving initiatives, including expanding access to medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder, fighting for access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone; increasing availability of testing for fentanyl in the drug supply; decriminalizing syringe possession; and building funding for harm reduction programs.
Overdose Prevention Centers are the next logical step in New York City’s ongoing commitment to setting a national standard for a health-based, lifesaving response to the overdose crisis.
New York’s overdose crisis kills more people than traffic accidents, homicides and suicides combined. The impact of overdose deaths in NYC is marked by extreme racial disparities, with overdose rates in the Bronx and East Harlem skyrocketing and a high concentration of overdose deaths among Black and Latinx New Yorkers, despite similar rates of use across racial and ethnic groups. The exploding overdose deaths rates and extreme disparities highlight the abysmal legacy of the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws and decades of criminalization. Instead of continuing to double down on devastatingly ineffective and harmful policies, the shift to evidence-based public health interventions like Overdose Prevention Centers signals a new day of drug policy for New York grounded in science and harm reduction; the pilot Overdose Prevention Centers announced today will operate as part of a broader harm reduction strategy in an all hands on deck effort to stem the tide of overdose deaths.
Overdose Prevention Centers, also known as safer consumption spaces, provide a sanctioned, safe space for people to consume pre-obtained drugs in controlled settings under the supervision of trained staff and with access to sterile consumption equipment and tools to check their supply for the presence of fentanyl. Participants can also receive health care, counseling, and referrals to health and social services, including drug treatment.
States and municipalities have the authority to legally authorize and implement overdose prevention centers, also called safer consumption spaces, in furtherance of public health goals, including prevention of drug overdose deaths and transmission of infectious diseases. We need only look to legalization of cannabis as an example of the state’s power to depart from federal drug laws and enforcement priorities in favor of the promotion of public health.
Safer consumption spaces have been in operation in Europe since the 1980s and in Canada since 2003—there are now over 120 sites operating worldwide. Supervised consumption sites have been rigorously evaluated and are proven to prevent and reduce overdose deaths among clients, increase client enrollment in drug treatment services, reduce nuisances associated with public injection, such as discarded needles and public intoxication, and save public resources. Millions of injections have taken place at some of them, yet not one overdose death has been documented in these facilities.
Earlier this year, mayors from across the country (including NYC, SF, Philadelphia) sent an open letter to the Department of Justice requesting clarity on the agency’s position on overdose prevention centers. Response is also pending from the Department of Justice with regard to the agency’s legal challenge to SafeHouse in Philadelphia.
The fight in NYC dramatically shifted in 2018, activists pushed Mayor de Blasio to support piloting four NYC Overdose Prevention Centers. Previously in 2016, Ithaca Mayor Myrick introduced the Ithaca Plan, which also voiced support for an overdose prevention center pilot. For the last three years, the cities have been waiting for New York State’s Department of Health to approve the pilot. In 2017 in NYC, over 100 healthcare providers released a letter in support of SCS, as advocates traveled throughout the state with a model SCS, which garnered statewide media attention.
Momentum for safer consumption spaces is building across the country, with a bill to establish pilot centers in Rhode Island becoming law this year, and movement in Philadelphia, in the California State Legislature, Kings County in Washington State, and Maryland, Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts all introducing legislation to approve the sites. Beyond academic research, a growing body of editorial boards and opinion pieces have highlighted the need: New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Albany Times-Union, New York Daily News, Baltimore Sun, Seattle Times, Bloomberg News, Los Angeles Times, New Jersey Star-Ledger, and the Boston Globe.