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Fatal Drug Overdoses Increased Last Year As Fentanyl Crisis Grips NYC Communities

A heroin user places a fentanyl test strip in a mixing container to check for contamination.
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A heroin user places a fentanyl test strip in a mixing container to check for contamination. Bebeto Matthews/AP/Shutterstock

Fatal drug overdoses continued to climb in New York City last year, thanks in large part to growing fentanyl usage, which was detected in more than half of the 1,487 overdose deaths in 2017, according to a new Health Department report. 2017's death toll is up from 1,374 fatal overdoses reported in 2016.

The sharp uptick in the potent synthetic opioid's popularity has hit the city's black population especially hard, particularly in the South Bronx neighborhoods of Hunts Point-Mott Haven and Highbridge-Morrisani. For the first time in a decade, overdose rates among black New Yorkers have surpassed rates among whites and Latinos, officials said.

"New York City’s drug overdose epidemic continues, but the story of who is affected is changing," said Acting Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot. "Still, the rate of increase has slowed, and we are optimistic that the many efforts of HealingNYC are moving us in the right direction."

Two years ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio launched a task force to combat the epidemic, following a stunning 66 percent increase in opioid deaths between 2010 and 2015. The mayor promised to distribute thousands of naloxone kits to impacted communities, and to increase funding "for community-based organizations serving people at risk for overdose" by $5.5 million. On Monday, the Health Department announced that an additional 15,000 kits would be provided to Opioid Overdose Prevention Programs in the Bronx, and that addiction medications would be made available at 12 new treatment sites citywide.

But advocates and former users have also criticized the mayor's "prohibition" approach to overdose deaths, noting that the bulk of the $70 million allocated toward opioid-related funding for police through 2021 will go toward enforcement efforts. According to the New York City Drug Policy Alliance, cracking down on small-time opioid dealers can lead to increases in cutting heroin with fentanyl because "there is more incentive for producers and distributors to minimize costs and maximize profits."

While drug reform advocates are pleased by the mayor's vow to explore safe injection facilties—an effort that is currently facing federal pushback—they say that other aspects of the city's drug strategy have only worsened the crisis.

"We've had the Special Narcotics Prosecutor for the City of New York since the last drug crisis, and it's been an abysmal failure," said Melissa Moore, Deputy State Director of the New York Drug Policy Alliance. "Looking at the outcomes, with the funding and resources that have gone to that office, instead of toward public health resources—we're living out what the implications of that decision."

The money that the city allocates to that office for drug-related prosecutions would be better spent on public health resources, specifically harm reduction programs in vulnerable communities, she said. Studies have shown that increases in drug-related arrests across the country between 1992 and 2002 did not result in decreased drug use.

"Clearly, the criminal justice approach hasn't worked," Moore added.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the total budget of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor as $375.6 million. The preliminary budget for the office is $22.492 million. The original figure mistakenly included the total budget for all five district attorneys offices, as well as the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor.

Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget G. Brennan also provided Gothamist with the following statement:

"Unfortunately the Drug Policy Alliance has decided to attack my office with false and highly inflated budget information, when accurate information is readily available, simply because I don't agree with the organization on the wisdom of putting safe injection facilities in New York City. A divisive attack based on patently false information will only hurt our efforts. We need collaboration and many different strategies to rein in this epidemic."

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