At the end of last year, New York City opened the first two safe injection sites, also known as overdose prevention centers, in the country to much fanfare, but also with a large degree of skepticism. Now, new polling shows an appetite among New York voters to expand the sites where people can take drugs obtained elsewhere under the supervision of trained medical staff in order to prevent overdose deaths.
A new poll from the left-leaning think tank Data for Progress found that a majority of likely New York voters favor bringing overdose prevention centers to other parts of the state beyond New York City. Of the 585 people polled online – crossing party and geographic lines – 64% responded that they either strongly or somewhat supported the idea of expanding the centers meant to reduce the number of deaths from drug overdoses. That includes 80% of Democrats and 43% of Republicans included as part of the survey. Conducting polling online rather than through phone surveys generally results in respondents that skew younger, and Data for Progress did not include an age breakdown of the numbers.
The poll comes in the wake of what harm reduction advocates consider a very successful first few months of New York City’s two pilot overdose prevention centers. According to data from the nonprofit that runs the two sites, over 10,000 people have visited them since they first opened, and staff have reversed over 200 overdoses. Originally, the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene had predicted 130 overdose reversals over the course of a year. “(With) the great success that has come out of New York City, we are hearing across the state from unlikely folks saying, ‘My loved one would have been alive if they had a safe place to go, this is the right way to do this,’” said Jasmine Budnella, director of drug policy at the leftwing advocacy organization Vocal-NY. In addition to providing medical care in the moment of an overdose, the centers also connect visitors with treatment, mental health and other services.
Budnella said New York’s opioid crisis has not abated in recent years, and in fact has gotten worse. “We were raising the alarm,” Bundella said. “We were screaming from the rooftops that we needed lawmakers to really take immediate action because overdoses were surging.” According to state data released this month, overdoses increased 37% from 2019 to 2020, with overdose deaths involving opioids increasing at an even greater rate with a 44% rise over the same time period. And New York recorded its highest number of overdose deaths ever in 2020.
With the new polling demonstrating support, advocates like Bundella are pushing for the passage of the Safer Consumption Services Act, a state bill that would authorize overdose prevention centers across New York by establishing a state-regulated program to set them up. The legislation has failed to move in years past, but its sponsors are hopeful that this year will be different. State Sen. Gustavo Rivera, the sponsor in his chamber, said the bill “absolutely is one of my priorities” in the last few weeks of the legislative session. He said that he has had conversations with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, adding that some of his Republican colleagues have privately begun to warm up to the idea. “This all stems from the fact that there's still a deep internalized stigma for drug use,” Rivera said of ongoing resistance to harm reduction policy. “In the last couple of years, it has become so clear to folks that… this stigma and the policies that have stemmed from it do not lead us to safer localities, do not lead us to healthier lives.”
Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal, the sponsor in her chamber, has worked on the legislation for the last six years, calling overdose prevention centers an “obvious” measure for the state to take to address overdose deaths. She added that in her work on the issue, she has also found that issues around substance abuse do not break down along partisan lines. “The fact that it's worked so tremendously in the city already shows that we don't need more studies,” Rosenthal said. “We don’t need to ruminate about this anymore.”
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