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Society

NYC OKs Safe Sites for Drug Use, Aiming to Curb Overdoses

November 30, 2021

NEW YORK — The first officially authorized safe havens for people to use heroin and other narcotics have been cleared to open in New York City in hopes of curbing overdoses, the mayor and health commissioner said Tuesday.

The “overdose prevention centers” — commonly known as supervised injection sites — have been discussed for years in New York and some other U.S. cities and already exist in Canada, Australia and Europe.

A few unofficial facilities have operated in the city for some time, allowing drug users a monitored place to partake.

Proponents say the facilities save lives by recognizing the reality of drug use and providing a place where users are watched for signs of overdoses, which claimed a record number of lives in the city and nation last year.

“I’m proud to show cities in this country that after decades of failure, a smarter approach is possible,” Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, said in a statement.

Opponents, however, see the sites as a moral failure that essentially sanctions people harming themselves, and federal law bans operating a place for narcotics use.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined last month to take up a Philadelphia group’s fight to open a safe injection site, which a divided federal appeals court had rejected. Federal prosecutors in Philadelphia had sued to stop it, citing a 1980s law that was aimed at shuttering locations where people used crack cocaine.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan declined Tuesday to comment on New York City’s plan.

The New York sites were opening Tuesday at existing syringe exchange programs, city Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi said.

Supervised injection sites generally have monitors who watch for signs of overdose and can administer an antidote if needed. Chokshi suggested the facilities also would offer people referrals to drug treatment and other services and “bring people in from the streets, improving life for everyone involved.”

More than 2,060 people died of overdoses last year in the nation’s most populous city, the most since reporting began in 2000. Nationwide, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there were more than 93,300 overdose deaths in 2020, up nearly 30% from the prior year’s number.

Researchers have estimated that New York’s City’s proposal could prevent 130 deaths and save $7 million in health care expenses per year. Studies have also found that such facilities reduce HIV infections and 911 calls for overdoses, among other problems.

De Blasio, who is term-limited and leaving office next month, announced in 2018 that the city would authorize four supervised injection sites as a test.

At the time, city officials said they would need approval from the state Health Department and the district attorneys in the areas of the sites, among other officials.

An inquiry was sent Tuesday to the Health Department.

Some of New York City’s five district attorneys have been open to safe injection sites. But city special narcotics prosecutor Bridget Brennan has expressed reservations, saying the facilities could risk legal problems, neighborhood tension and giving a misimpression that drug use is safe.

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