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NYC Opens Two Supervised Drug Injection Sites

The non-profit organization OnPoint NYC has received national attention after recently opening two of the country's first overdose prevention sites. Read More

The non-profit organization OnPoint NYC has received national attention after recently opening two of the country’s first overdose prevention sites. The sites ae located in Harlem and Washington Heights. Both locations received clearance to open from Mayor Bill de Blasio to openly all supervised substance use onsite. For some context, supervised injection sites, also known as “safe” injection sites, are places where a drug user can have a safe place to use their dug of choice, with an onsite clinician ready to intervene in the event of an overdose.

Blasio had been pushing for this program since 2018. The program comes to New Yok City at a time where there’s record rates of drug overdose fatalities during the pandemic. Last year, there was a recorded 30 drug overdose deaths for every 100,000 residents, this is more than three times the tally from 20 years ago. Clearly something needs to be done. Some worry that safe injection sites will only increase drug use and make communities unsafe. Despite the pushback, the sites are already yielding positive results. As of December 15th, out of 350 registered participants, the staff had reversed 43 overdoses. This was done in the first two weeks of both sites opening.

“This is a people’s living room. We work with a lot of people who are street-entrenched and homeless and don’t have a place to be,” said Kailin See, the senior director of programs at OnPoint NYC. One visitor described the site as a safe space, saying he would use a mix of cocaine and heroin “everywhere and anywhere.” He continued to say that “Now, I only use it here when I can.” While critics might feel these sites enable drug abuse, there’s a very real benefit of users to be in a place where they can received medical attention.

Visitors have to bring their own drugs, but they can receive clean syringes and other paraphernalia onsite. The site has an overdose prevention booths that has eight booths sectioned off with partitions. There are also more private screened-off areas for guests.

According to See, one of the reasons two locations have been opened is to implement slightly different models at each one to wok with researchers and compare results. See explains that the objective is to essentially “create a blueprint [for] the rest of the country to support the standing up of these sites in other jurisdictions. The center in Harlem uses a medical model that keeps a registered nurse and care coordinator on hand. The center in Washington Heights uses a “peer” system, where some staff members are users themselves. Non-clinical staff are trained to use the same techniques as clinicians in order to prevent overdoses.

Some clients feel more at ease in a peer run center. See explained that participants shared that they “feel safe” and know that they “won’t be judged.”  Both sites have their benefits, and both sites provide a safe space.

Of course there’s been backlash against the sites. U.S. Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican who represents parts of South Brooklyn and Staten Island, has introduced a bill in congress that would prohibit organizations running overdose prevention centers from receiving federal funding. “I’m opposed to the heroin injection sites because I believe it is only encouraging and enabling people who have an addiction.” Malliotakis said in a statement. She’s also urged Attorney General Merrick Garland to have the Department of Justice crackdown on both New Yok City sites.

In Harlem, community members rallied with Rev. Al Sharpton and U.S. Rep. Adriano Espaillat to protest the arrival of the injection site. Protesters voiced support of the concept of an overdose prevention center, however felt it was installed in the neighborhood rather than being equitably distributed around the city. Residents claim that drug dealers have “set up shop” in the areas with the sites due to a of the higher concentration of users. Residents feel there should be more centers throughout the city so it doesn’t bring “danger” to their communities.