The City Council has agreed to fund a $100,000 study on the pros and cons of Supervised Injection Facilities—clinical centers where heroin users can inject with clean supplies. While heroin overdoses have increased steadily in recent years, this decision marks the the city's first move on the SIF front: a preventative solution popular among advocates that has also been criticized as a drug-use facilitator.
"The Council's new supervised injection impact study will assess the feasibility and impact of New York City having a program that provides a safe, clean haven to high-risk, vulnerable New Yorkers and will help prevent drug overdoses and disease transmissions," Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said in a statement to Politico.
SIFs are currently illegal in the US, but have been established in 66 cities worldwide. The Mayor of Ithaca—a city that saw three heroin overdose deaths in a single week last year—unveiled a harm reduction plan last winter that hinges on SIFs (criticism was harsh and swift). And this March, Manhattan State Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal announced that she'll push for a State-funded SIF program. Earlier this month in Seattle, Washington, a task force recommended two SIFs for Seattle's King County, including one in the city itself.
"I think opposition for SIFs has been diminishing over the years, and that pace really increased over the last year," said Vocal-NY spokesman Jeremy Saunders on Wednesday. "And sadly the reason this is happening right now is the scale of the problem. Overdose deaths continue to go up."
Opioid-related overdose deaths in New York City increased 66% between 2010 and 2015, according to new statistics from the Department of Health. Of the 937 people who died of an opioid overdose in New York City last year, 556 of them, or 59%, died while taking heroin.
Of the SIF study, Saunders added, "I think there's a lot of optimism and support" in the advocate community.
SIFs operate on the assumption that heroin-related deaths are inevitable so long as addicts feel pressure to shoot up out of public view—often in parks and public restrooms—and scramble for access to clean needles. Users also run the risk of contracting Hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS. At a SIF facility, the staff is trained to respond to an overdose. Information about detox programs is also readily available, although detox isn't mandatory for entry into a SIF.
The NYPD is currently required to carry naloxone, an overdose drug that recently became available over-the-counter at pharmacies across the city. Mayor de Blasio also recently committed to distributing an additional 7,500 naloxone kits to neighborhood organizations, and the city recently launched a Nonfatal Overdose Response System, which is intended to help social workers follow up with non-fatal overdose victims.
"We can distribute more Narcan, we can provide education, but if people are going to use in a McDonald's bathroom, or they are going to use at home alone, people are going to continue to die unnecessarily," said CORNER Project director Mark Towsend in August.
The Department of Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the study's timeline.