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Nation’s first supervised drug consumption sites open in uptown Manhattan

The first supervised drug consumption sites in the country began operating in New York City Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced, after more than a year of record-shattering overdose deaths.

The facilities, also known as overdose prevention centers, give people a safe setting to consume illegal drugs with medical professionals on site to intervene in case of an overdose and social workers who connect them to services.

City Health Department officials estimate the programs could save up to 130 lives a year.

“Overdose Prevention Centers are a safe and effective way to address the opioid crisis. I’m proud to show cities in this country that after decades of failure, a smarter approach is possible,” de Blasio said in a statement on Nov. 30.

The two authorized sites are run by the nonprofits New York Harm Reduction Educators on East 126th Street in East Harlem and the Washington Heights CORNER Project on West 180th Street, both of which receive city funding.

The uptown Manhattan outposts already operated as needle exchanges providing clean syringes and the organizations will merge to form OnPoint NYC to offer the new services, but the city will not staff or operate the sites, the New York Times reported.

Recent city statistics show that every four hours someone dies of a drug overdose in New York City, accounting for more fatalities than homicides, suicides, and traffic crashes combined.

From January to March of this year, 596 people died from overdoses, the highest number in a single quarter on record since officials began reporting in 2000.

That follows a devastating 2020, when 2,062 lost their lives to overdoses in the city, also the highest recorded number since counting started and up 565 deaths from 2019.

The highly-potent opioid fentanyl was involved in more than three-in-four overdoses, or 77%, in 2020, including 93% of heroin-involved overdoses, 81% of cocaine-involved overdoses, 80% of alcohol-involved overdoses.

Bronx and Harlem neighborhoods had the highest rates of overdose deaths in the city, along with hotspots around East New York, Brooklyn, and Staten Island’s North Shore.

Overdose rates are particularly high in Harlem, the Bronx, East New York, and Staten Island’s North Shore.NYC Department of Health

Across the United States a stunning 90,000 people died of drug overdoses last year, also the worst year on record.

“The national overdose epidemic is a five-alarm fire in public health, and we have to tackle this crisis concurrently with our COVID fight,” said the city’s Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi. “Giving people a safe, supportive space will save lives and bring people in from the streets, improving life for everyone involved.”

Safe consumption sites are part of a public health strategy known as harm reduction and have operated for decades in Europe and more recently in Canada and Australia.

The city previously tried to pilot sites in 2018, but the proposal languished under former Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Governor Kathy Hochul in October promised to “study” safe injection sites and consult advocates after she signed a package of bills aimed at combatting the opioid epidemic.

Studies primarily focused on Canada and Australia have found that the sites reduced overdoses, provided access to health care for highly-vulnerable populations, and did not increase drug use, trafficking, or crime in surrounding areas and actually decreased open-air drug use and syringe litter.

Kevin Duggan
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Kevin Duggan

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