New Yorkers Demand Results On Safer Consumption Spaces As Opioid Deaths Rise

Forbes_logo.svg.pngBy Janet Burns

[Updated 5/2/2018 6:11pm EST to reflect the de Blasio administration's announcement that it will support the creation of safer consumption spaces in New York City]

After months of waiting for NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio to release data on safer consumption spaces (SCS) and outreach for injected drug users, community leaders and family members of overdose victims are taking to the streets to tell lawmakers time's up.

On Wednesday morning, a group of close to 100 community activists, social advocates, and politicians rallied outside New York City Hall and blocked traffic on Broadway to demand the long-delayed release of results from a feasibility study commissioned by the city around SCS, also known as supervised injection sites.

Amid heavy police presence, several participants were arrested for their role in obstructing traffic, including NYC Council Member Stephen T. Levin and as many as a dozen advocates from VOCAL-NYHousing Works, the Users Union, and other nonprofit groups.

Commissioned by New York's City Council in 2016 with a planned delivery date of fall 2017, the study sought to explore the potential impact of opening SCS in NYC, where opioid overdose deaths have risen significantly in recent years. Throughout 2018, the mayor has publicly maintained that the results would be released soon, and finally offered a deadline of the end of April, which critics point out has now come and gone.

Following months of requests to review the results of the city's study on SCS, which have shown significant benefits in cities outside the U.S., advocates have worked to increase pressure on Mayor de Blasio's office with a series of weekly collaborative demonstrations at City Hall over the past month. In April, a group of demonstrators was dragged from inside the building after attempting to "sit in" for a response from the mayor.

On Monday, Mayor de Blasio stated once again that the results of the study would be released quite soon. According to reports, the mayor avoided today's demonstration by entering City Hall through a side door, as is often common for higher-level officials.

At this week's action, a diverse group of New Yorkers gathered once again in Lower Manhattan with signs and banners noting the opioid crisis' devastation, while one contingent sought to escalate their call for the study's release by blocking late-morning traffic on Broadway.

In a statement made prior to his arrest, Council Member Levin commented, “We have a tool that is proven to increase access to treatment and reduce fatal overdoses. We can take action today. Nearly two years ago, the Council commissioned a study on safer consumption spaces. Today, our message to the administration is simple: release the study. Every seven hours, another New Yorker loses their life to a drug overdose. Time is not on our side.”

Asia Betancourt, Community Leader at VOCAL-NY, also commented in a statement, “I see more people dying of overdose than ever before. It’s a crisis, and either the Mayor is too afraid to act or he just doesn’t care,” she continued. “The scientific evidence around SCS is clear: [they save] lives and connect people to care."

In the past several weeks, numerous public figures have added their voices to calls for the City Council to release its commissioned study results, as well as to implement strategy based on those findings as quickly as possible. Such figures include former NYC mayor David Dinkins, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Council Member and Chair of the Mental Health, Disabilities, and Addiction Committee Diana Ayala, Council Member and Chair of the Health Committee Mark Levine, and the editorial board of the New York Times.

Speaker Johnson commented in a statement, “I don’t know what the holdup is. Other cities are moving forward and we’re stuck in limbo. Meanwhile, the number of people overdosing continues to skyrocket. This is not a time for inaction. The Mayor knows how strongly I feel about this and we will continue to push for the study’s release.”

Two weeks ago, NYPD representatives also reportedly took a learning tour of mobile SCS units in Toronto, Ontario, where activists have been working to provide on-the-ground support to drug abusers — and to provide data on the impact of their efforts — for several years. An NYPD contingent previously visited established SCS locations in Vancouver, BC prior to advocates' current push for more action in NYC, according to reports.

On Thursday, the de Blasio administration announced that it would indeed move forward with safer consumption spaces in New York City.

Regarding this news, Betancourt said in a statement, "It may be too late for my brother, who died of overdose, but I know he is smiling down on New York City today. It won’t be too late for the thousands of people who desperately need these services.” Alyssa Aguilera, Co-Executive Director of VOCAL-NY, also commented, "The reality is that people use drugs and forcing individuals to inject in public bathrooms and parks is unsafe and inhumane. We are pleased that New York City is finally moving forward on this lifesaving effort.”

Kassandra Frederique, New York state director for nonprofit the Drug Policy Alliance, also applauded the mayor's decision to move forward with trial plans for SCS in the city.

“Mayor de Blasio’s embrace of safer consumption spaces is a critical step forward in preventing overdose deaths in New York City. We know that safer consumption spaces are an evidence-based solution that can help dramatically in saving lives, reducing criminalization, and improving public health," Frederique said in a statement. "New York can and must be a leader now in saving lives by opening safer consumption spaces swiftly.”

According to data compiled by NYC's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, unintentional drug overdose deaths in New York City rose from 937 in 2015 to 1,374 in 2016, while available data suggests that 2017 is on track to continue the city's six-year trend of rising overdose rates.

The mayor's office was reached out to for comment, which will be included here when and if available.

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