During the last legislative session, I visited OnPoint NYC’s East Harlem Overdose Prevention Center. These safe injection sites are controversial, despite data showing no deaths have occurred and many struggling with addiction have been turned on to medical treatment. In my time in the state Senate, I have toured dozens, if not hundreds, of manufacturing plants, schools and nonprofit organizations. I have been fortunate to meet with so many hardworking, caring individuals doing what they do best: serving our communities.
This was the first time I did not know what to expect.
What I found was a clean, professional environment. It felt like I had stepped into an outpatient hospital setting, one that had built a strong congregate community. Users and staff have developed intimate, trusting relationships. Users support each other by celebrating milestones and overcoming hardships, all while knowing the staff truly believes in the values of acceptance without judgment. OnPoint is not an unruly or isolating facility for users – it is a safe haven.
After this experience, I was convinced that overdose prevention centers are a critical component for combating the opioid crisis that has permeated large and small communities across New York State. This is why I was disheartened to see the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District recently indicate these sites could become targets to be closed. While I understand his interpretation of overdose prevention center operations through the lens of law enforcement, as a state policymaker, I view the potential shutdown of OnPoint as a significant step backward in our effort to provide help to so many New Yorkers facing serious issues of addiction.
It would be easy to think of this as only a New York City problem. My upstate constituents are not traveling to an overdose prevention center in Manhattan and a facility shutdown would not impact them; some may even support it. The sad reality, however, is that a countless number of my constituents are fighting addiction and too many have buried loved ones who have lost their battle. This year in Monroe County, we have seen over 1,900 overdoses, 183 fatal. The heartbreak of each of these numbers transcends the boundaries of politics. When a neighbor pulls me aside at an event or or stops me in the grocery store to share their grief, they are not asking for a Republican or the Democrat solution, they are pleading for a way to stop the loss of life, especially for a growing number of young people.
This opioid crisis is not unique to New York City, nor Rochester or the state. No matter where elected to serve, people are dying, and closing down overdose prevention centers destroys the only solution to giving immediate relief and a medically-safe pathway to recovery.
I fully acknowledge this is a complex, multi-layered issue. The opioid crisis falls smack dab in the center of a venn diagram with too many overlapping-circles to count. Long-term solutions must simultaneously address mental health, poverty, healthcare inequities, educational system failures, combatting big pharma, and others. Overdose prevention centers are not a magic wand, rather they are an essential part of a conversation that involves rehabilitation, harm reduction and clear pathways for those who are ready for help.
This is a daunting task, but not one we should fear.
We are New Yorkers. Bold, progressive thought leadership are not convenient buzz words, they are character traits. I signed onto state Sen. Gustavo Rivera’s Safer Consumption Services Act because communities, like mine, need options. Not every city or neighborhood needs an overdose prevention center, but when facing a crisis of this magnitude, municipalities should have every option on the table.
I’m a local government guy. I cut my teeth at Rochester City Hall. In no way do I want to force a municipality or its citizens to adopt a solution they do not agree with or feel is the right fit for their needs. But, I also know that the most frustrating words to hear in local government are “we’re not authorized, it’s up to the state.”
It is time for the state Legislature and the governor to stand together on this issue. We must authorize overdose prevention center operations to protect the progress they are making and ensure local leaders have every resource as we fight to break opioid addiction.
Jeremy Cooney is a state senator representing Rochester.