New York City Opening Safe Sites for Narcotics Use After Setting Overdose Record in 2020

New York City is set to open safe sites for people to use narcotics in hopes of controlling overdoses after the city set a new record last year, the Associated Press reported.

The supervised injection sites were added to locations where existing syringe exchange programs were. The sites were open Tuesday, City Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi said.

The facilities will "bring people in from the streets, improving the life for everyone involved," he said.

Advocates said the facilities save lives because it allows drugs users a safe space to use and be watched for signs of overdoses after the record number of overdoses the city saw last year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) there were more than 2,060 overdoses during 2020 in New York City. It's the highest reported number of overdoses since the state started recording in 2000.

Users must bring their own drugs to the supervised injection sites as drugs are not sold at the locations. The site will have people to watch for signs of overdose and administer medication if needed.

As of now, federal law bans facilities that operate as a place for people to use narcotics.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Heroin, Safe Haven, Overdose, New York City
The first officially authorized safe havens for people to use heroin and other narcotics have been cleared to open in New York City in hopes of curbing overdoses, the mayor and health commissioner said on November 30. In this June 19, 2018, photo, a safe needle disposal container hangs in the bathroom of VOCAL-NY headquarters in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Mary Altaffer/AP Photo

The U.S. Supreme Court declined last month to take up a Philadelphia group's fight to open a safe injection site, which a divided federal appeals court had rejected. Federal prosecutors in Philadelphia had sued to stop it, citing a 1980s law that was aimed at shuttering locations where people used crack cocaine.

The U.S. Justice Department declined Tuesday to comment on New York City's plan.

Chokshi suggested the facilities also would offer people referrals to drug treatment and other services.

"I'm proud to show cities in this country that after decades of failure, a smarter approach is possible," Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, said in a statement.

Opponents, however, see the sites as a moral failure that essentially sanctions people harming themselves.

The "overdose prevention centers"—commonly known as supervised injection sites—have been discussed for years in New York and some other U.S. cities and states. They already exist in Canada, Australia and Europe.

A few unofficial facilities have operated in the city for some time, allowing drug users a monitored place to partake.

The U.S. has been contending for years with a boom in opioid use and deaths, fueled at first by increased prescribing in the 1990s and then by users turning to heroin and illicit fentanyl. Nearly 500,000 people nationwide died of opioid overdoses from 1999-2019, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the epidemic only worsened last year.

The CDC estimated there were more than 93,300 overdose deaths in 2020, up nearly 30 percent from the prior year's number.

Looking at such statistics, cities from San Francisco to the college town of Ithaca, New York, have sought to open supervised injection sites. In July, Rhode Island became the first state to authorize them.

At the same time, some communities in the Seattle area and elsewhere have moved to ban them or discussed doing so.

Researchers have estimated that New York's City's proposal could prevent 130 deaths and save $7 million in health care expenses per year. Studies have also found that such facilities reduce HIV infections and 911 calls for overdoses, among other problems.

De Blasio, who is term-limited and leaving office next month, first asked the state for permission to authorize such sites in 2018.

At the time, city officials said they would need approval from the state Health Department and the district attorneys in the areas of the sites, among other officials.

An inquiry was sent Tuesday to the Health Department.

Some of New York City's five district attorneys, including those in Brooklyn and Manhattan, are open to safe injection sites. But city special narcotics prosecutor Bridget Brennan has expressed reservations, saying the facilities could risk legal problems, neighborhood tension and giving a misimpression that drug use is safe.

Narcotics, New York City, Evelyn Milan
The first officially authorized safe havens for people to use heroin and other narcotics have been cleared to open in New York City. In this July 3, 2018 file photo, Evelyn Milan, right, director of services at VOCAL-NY, prepares a package with sterile injecting equipment for a member at the organization's headquarters in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Mary Altaffer, File/AP Photo