New York City Opens Supervised Injection Sites, Where People Can Use Illegal Drugs
In this November 30, 2021 photo, syringes and vials of Naloxone are shown during the media tour of the supervised drug injection site OnPoint, in New York.
YUKI IWAMURA/AFP via Getty Images

New York City authorized two supervised injection sites to begin operating in Manhattan earlier this week, and on the first day, staff reversed two overdoses.

The New York Times reported that the two sites – one in East Harlem and one in Washington Heights – “provided clean needles, administered naloxone to reverse overdoses and provided users with options for addiction treatments.” People who use the injection sites had to bring their own drugs.

New York City became the first city in the nation to open supervised injection sites, the Times reported.

“Other cities including Philadelphia, San FranciscoBoston and Seattle have taken steps toward supervised injection but have yet to open sites amid debate over the legal and moral implications of sanctioning illegal drug use,” the outlet reported.

Dr. Dave A. Chokshi, New York City’s health commissioner, told the Times that the sites are meant to help control the city’s overdose crisis.

“Every four hours, someone dies of a drug overdose in New York City,” he told the outlet. “We feel a deep conviction and also sense of urgency in opening overdose prevention centers.”

As the Times reported:

Nationally, overdose deaths rose to more than 100,000 in the 12-month period that ended in April, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, up nearly 30 percent from the previous 12 months.

More than 2,000 people died of a drug overdose in New York City in 2020, the highest total since the city began keeping track of overdose deaths in 2000. During the first three months of 2021, there were close to 600 overdose deaths, according to preliminary data. New York also saw an increase in overdose deaths related to fentanyl and other synthetic drugs.

The facilities are being run by two non-profits – New York Harm Reduction Educators and Washington Heights Corner Project – who have merged to form OnPoint NYC. The city, and thus taxpayers, provide funding to those nonprofits.

The New York Times updated its article without notification after publication. The original article included comments from two individuals who used the facility and described it as “kind of like the D.M.V.” The Times originally wrote:

Inside the space, there are bathrooms set aside for drug users, equipped with a chair, a desk and a diaper-changing table, said the couple, who asked to be identified only by their first names and last initials, Jonathan D. and Kira D., so as not to jeopardize Jonathan’s job.

“If you’re in the bathroom longer than 15 minutes, they knock on the door and ask if you’re OK,” said Kira, 26. “If you don’t answer, they come in.”

After injecting, users are encouraged to come out to a waiting room lined with chairs — “kind of like the D.M.V.,” said Jonathan, 36 — where workers in medical scrubs stand by ready to treat overdoses.

“People that are nodding out too hard, they go over and make sure you’re nodding out and not falling out,” Jonathan said.

The experience inside the facilities is now described differently:

Both sites began offering injection services on Tuesday. Inside the East Harlem site, a dozen people sat on chairs in a waiting area. Some were eating lunch, some were seeking refuge from the raw weather and some were dozing, quietly affected by whatever narcotic they had just taken in the “overdose prevention center,” an inner room with eight booths equipped with “crash carts” stocked with naloxone and other lifesaving tools.

In the day room, Kailin See, OnPoint’s senior director of programs, interrupted a tour she was giving reporters when she spotted a bearded man in one of the chairs with his head all the way down on his chest. She noticed that his nod seemed “heavy.”

She walked over and rubbed his sternum and quietly told him “I need two more hours from you” before she would feel comfortable with him leaving. The man sat up.

Eva Chan, a member of Community Board 11 in East Harlem, explained that she was fine with the centers so long as they were not near her own home.

“If every district in New York City has one site and it’s not right next to my home, I’m not against it,” Chan told the Times. “But the root cause of high drug use in East Harlem is the over-concentration of drug treatment facilities, and this does not address that.”

Other members of the communities expressed dismay with the facilities as well.

“Not only can I buy my drugs here but I can safely shoot them up in a comfortable atmosphere where people are watching over me?” said Syderia Asberry-Chresfield, co-founder of an organization aimed at improving Harlem. “And then they go outside and they wreak havoc in the neighborhood. We can’t live like this.”

Juan Carlos Feliz, another resident, said it was “not cool” for the city to place one of the facilities across the street from the school attended by his young children.

Federal law states that it is illegal to operate a building that allows people to use illegal drugs, but Democrats at the local and federal level have declined to enforce federal drug laws for the past decade. A similar proposal did get push back from the Trump administration in 2019 when the Department of Justice sued to keep Philadelphia from opening a supervised injection facility, but there isn’t any indication that President Joe Biden will move to do the same.

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