Dozens of harm reduction advocates blocked the entrances to Governor Andrew Cuomo's Midtown office on Wednesday, as they called on him to approve a city plan that would open four overdose prevention centers for New Yorkers to safely inject drugs.
The one-year pilot program, which was announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio in May of 2018, was expected to create the country's first supervised injections sites (SIFs). The news was hailed by advocates and drug policy experts alike, who point to evidence that the strategy has reduced overdose rates and disease transmission when implemented abroad.
But well over a year later, New York appears no closer to making the potentially life-saving facilities a reality. Advocates say that blame rests primarily with the governor, who they accuse of intentionally delaying the State Department of Health's mandated review of the program. A spokesperson for City Hall confirmed that they were still waiting on authorization from the state.
On Wednesday, 13 activists–including photographer and artist Nan Goldin–were arrested, as they blocked the doors to the governor's office while chanting, "Cuomo lied, people died."
"We don’t need more foot-dragging, you just need to let me do my job and take care of people who use drugs so they can live," Dr. Kim Sue, the medical director of the National Harm Reduction Coalition, told Gothamist. "It's completely unacceptable that I'm not allowed to have a space to keep people safe. I’ve had patients die because they use in alleys, because they use in bathrooms."
A spokesperson for the Governor's Office, Rich Azzopardi, denied charges of blocking the facilities, and directed inquiries to the Department of Health. "They're the ones that are reviewing it," he said. "The advocates know this."
Jasmine Budnella, Drug Policy Coordinator at VOCAL-NY, called the response "hilarious."
"The governor has every ability to move forward with this life-saving intervention at any moment that he wants," she noted. "He could do it today, but yet again he's showing he's not a leader in this crisis."
Budnella also pointed to a bill passed by the state legislature this session that would eliminate prior authorization for buprenorphine and other related prescriptions, allowing users faster access to medically assisted treatment. The bill has not yet been signed by Cuomo, leaving some advocates concerned that the sole piece of overdose prevention legislation aimed at low-income New Yorkers that lawmakers passed this year could fall by the wayside. Azzopardi said that the bill is still being reviewed by the governor's lawyers.
"He’s continued to underfund the crisis, he’s blocked a lifesaving intervention for over a year, and this one bill we were able to pass he has yet to sign," Budnella said.
Reached for comment, a spokesperson for the Department of Health provided a statement praising the governor for his "aggressive, comprehensive response to the opioid epidemic." The statement added that DOH officials "have been in active dialogue with advocates and the city on the proposal while addressing potential law enforcement concerns and the threat of legal challenges."
Some legal observers have warned that the injection sites could face a federal challenge under the so-called crack house statute, which prohibits operation of sites for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using a controlled substance.
Advocates, meanwhile, point to needle exchange programs—which were once criminalized and are now widely seen as a public health solution—as a precedent for defying federal law. According to a letter sent by Deputy Mayor Herminia Palacio to State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker last year, the state should be able at least authorize the facilities as part of a "research study." At that point, enforcement would fall to President Trump's Justice Department.
"It doesn't make sense that we're beholden to a federal statute, when there are ways to navigate around it, while our governor continues to say he's going to stand up to Trump by any means necessary," Budnella told Gothamist at a demonstration back in November, after the Department of Health offered a similar rationale for the delay in approval.
Asked if there were signs of progress in the nine months since that protest, Budnella told Gothamist on Wednesday, "No. Nothing has changed."