After months of city-funded research and years of nudging from harm reduction advocates, the de Blasio administration announced on Thursday that it would create a pilot program for four facilities for New Yorkers to safely inject drugs.
"The current status quo is unacceptable," Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Brian Lehrer Friday morning. "We lose people in their homes, in their basements, in the bathroom of a McDonalds or a Starbucks alone with no help. That can’t go on. And overdose prevention centers give us a chance to actually change that."
De Blasio said the centers will be located inside current needle exchange facilities in Washington Heights, Midtown West, Longwood, and Park Slope.
The one-year pilot still needs the approval of Governor Andrew Cuomo's State Health Department, as well as the District Attorneys in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn, the Councilmembers who represent the districts where the facilities are located, and a community advisory board that will be created to garner feedback.
The planning process is expected to take 6 to 12 months, according to a letter sent by Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, Dr. Herminia Palacio, to the head of the State Health Department.
While the mayor called them Overdose Prevention Centers, Dr. Danielle Ompad, PhD, the deputy director of the NYU Meyers Center for Drug Use and HIV/HCV Research, said they also exist to "reduce the risk of infections diseases, like HIV and Hepatitis B and C."
"It provides a low threshold type of situation where people can come and not be judged for their drug use, and so it often opens opportunities to get people other resources they might need, from housing, to job training, to access to drug treatment," Dr. Ompad told Gothamist.
— Matt Markovich (@mattmarkovich) February 8, 2017
Vancouver opened safe injection facilities in 2003, and public health officials there say they have lowered overdose deaths, if not drastically. Another study showed a reduction in HIV cases and ambulance calls, and no increase in arrests for drug trafficking, assault, or robberies.
Seattle has also moved forward with creating a safe injection facility, but a lack of funding has stalled its opening.
Dr. Ompad said she visited two of Vancouver's facilities this past summer, and said the experience was "amazing."
"There were these carrels with a chair, a flat surface, a sharps container on the wall, and a mirror, and people got all the supplies they needed to use their drugs and then they moved out of the room and into a 'chill room' where people would relax," Dr. Ompad said.
One Brian Lehrer caller and Park Slope resident expressed concern that the injection facility would negatively affect the "quality of life" in the neighborhood.
"There’s a lot schools around the site they want to put near the Barclays Center and the concern is about the safety and the people who are going to frequent that place," the caller said.
The mayor responded that the site was already a needle exchange.
"The folks going in and out—it’s no different than what’s happening right now, this is currently a needle exchange program," de Blasio said. "And that has not had a negative impact on the quality of life in the community, and I know that because I’ve been living in the community for—since 1992 and this center that we’re talking about there has been there for quite a while."
De Blasio added that "we will be working with the NYPD from the very beginning to ensure there is a safe environment, an orderly environment around these overdose prevention centers. We will not tolerate anything less. That’s absolute."
Dr. Ompad said that the facilities in Vancouver don't encourage anything but the safe and speedy use of drugs combined with an outreach for social services.
"There's often a whole kind of process that people go through, this ritual when they use drugs. But [the facilities] set time limits: use your drugs, go to the chill room, then go about your day," Dr. Ompad said.
"It can help stabilize people in many ways."