Health Care

Supervised injection sites expected to open in New York City

The “Overdose Prevention Centers” are the first of their kind in the U.S.

New York City plans to open two supervised injection sites.

New York City plans to open two supervised injection sites. OLESYA BOLTENKOVA/Shutterstock

New York City will open two supervised injection sites in an effort to mitigate the opioid crisis following a year of record drug overdose deaths both in the city and across the country.

The “Overdose Prevention Centers” are expected to open in East Harlem and Washington Heights as early as Tuesday and will be operated by the nonprofits New York Harm Reduction Educators and the Washington Heights Corner Project, city health officials announced Monday. Both groups receive city funding and will merge to form a coalition called “OnPoint NYC.”

Staffers will be equipped with the overdose reversal drug naloxone and clean needles for users who show up with injectable drugs, officials said. 

“Overdose Prevention Centers can turn the tide in the fight against the opioid crisis, and New York City is ready to lead the way,” Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Melanie Hartzog said in a statement on Monday. “We have lost too much to rely on the same playbook. It’s time to take bold action to help our most vulnerable neighbors and the communities they call home.”

In 2020, more than 2,000 people died of drug overdoses in the city, the highest number recorded since data was made available in 2000, according to the city health department. Between January and March this year, the city recorded 596 deaths, the most in a single quarter. Nationally, over 90,000 people died of overdoses last year, which was also the worst year on record. 

Activists, for years, have called upon the city to open the country’s first supervised injection sites. A formalized plan was unveiled as early as 2016, under City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who chaired the health committee at the time, and in 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio began to publicly co-sponsor the idea. 

However, the plan required the approval of the state health department, which is controlled by the governor. While ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo initially expressed tempered support for the idea, the sites never came to fruition and faced legal hurdles under former President Donald Trump, whose Justice Department threatened to sue cities considering them.

Now, with Cuomo and Trump out of office and de Blasio eyeing a gubernatorial run in the final 10 weeks of his mayoral tenure, the plan was put back into motion and garnered renewed attention from the governor’s office.

“I’m talking to all the advocates and the legislators about that and I want us to do a study on that as well,” Gov. Kathy Hochul told the Long-Island Press in October as she signed a package of addiction services bills. 

Activists and lawmakers championed the initiative following the Monday announcement. 

“For more than 29 years, we have dedicated our lives to ending #overdose deaths & the criminalization & stigma associated with substance use,” Harm Reduction tweeted. “Being the 1st OPC site in the US is an honor & incredible step forward in ending the #overdosecrisis.”

Others were hesitant about a possible influx of drug users in their neighborhoods.

“If every district in New York City has one site and it’s not right next to my home, I’m not against it,” Eva Chan, a member of Community Board 11 in East Harlem, told The New York Times. “But the root cause of why people are shooting up here is that they’ve been using East Harlem as a dumping ground for a long time. So they don’t address the root cause.”

Officials said Monday that multiple agencies would be dispatched to monitor the street conditions surrounding the sites as they open. 

De Blasio also sent a letter to the site operators reassuring them that they would not be targeted by law enforcement, the Times reported. 

New York City Police Department brass previously expressed openness for the sites, and four of the five borough-based district attorneys have also reportedly signaled their support.

Philadelphia and San Francisco are among the other U.S. cities that have floated ideas for publicly sponsored injection centers. Globally, Canada and several European countries have similar programs.