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In push to curb overdose deaths, NYC becomes first in nation to open safe injection sites

New York City safe injection sites in upper Manhattan. (New York Drug Enforcement Task Force/TNS)

Hard drug users will now be able to inject heroin and other drugs at two so-called safe injection sites in upper Manhattan, making New York City the first in the nation to officially sanction such services.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and top city health officials announced the creation of the safe injection sites Tuesday as the city struggles to deal with a growing crisis of overdose deaths.

In the first three months of 2021 alone, 596 people died of overdoses in the city — the highest rate of such drug-related deaths in a three-month span since the city began keeping such data in 2000. In 2020, more than 2,000 people died from overdoses throughout the five boroughs — another all-time high, according to city records.

“After exhaustive study, we know the right path forward to protect the most vulnerable people in our city. And we will not hesitate to take it,” de Blasio said in a written statement. “Overdose Prevention Centers are a safe and effective way to address the opioid crisis. I’m proud to show cities in this country that after decades of failure, a smarter approach is possible.”

The mayor’s controversial announcement was made through a press release — not at one of the mayor’s morning news briefings, which would have allowed for reporters to pose questions directly to him.

The city-sanctioned shooting galleries are located in East Harlem and Washington Heights, according to a spokesman for de Blasio.

The sites will be run by two non-profits — New York Harm Reduction Educators in East Harlem and the Washington Heights Corner Project — a Health Department spokesman said. Both of the non-profits are funded by the city, but the city will not staff or operate the facilities, the spokesman said.

The aim is to prevent drug users from overdosing by providing them with a safe place to get their fix. The operators of the facilities will offer clean needles and addiction treatment options, as well as naloxone, which is used to reverse overdoses.

A heroin user prepares to shoot up on the street in a South Bronx neighborhood that has one of the highest rates of heroin-involved overdose deaths in New York City.

Overdoses have become prevalent nationwide in recent years due to the presence of fentanyl, an extremely strong opioid that’s often mixed in with other narcotics such as heroin. In recent months in Washington Heights, it has become common to see addicts shooting up on the street and in subway stairwells. And for years, East Harlem has served as a gathering place for addicts, owing in part to the concentration of methadone clinics in the neighborhood.

The news of the new injection sites, which was first reported in the NY Times, prompted an almost immediate backlash from the conservative side of the political spectrum.

U.S. Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, R-N.Y., pointed to already existing law as her central argument against the new city policy.

A federal law, known broadly as the “crack house statute,” prohibits using or opening “any place, whether permanently or temporarily, for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using any controlled substance.”

Running afoul of the prohibition can carry with it a penalty of up to 20 years in prison and fines up to $2 million.

In a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, Malliotakis called the new policy “unlawful” and urged him to “close these sites and prevent this dangerous plan from expanding.”

“Experiments with ‘safe’ injection sites have resulted in a concentration of addicts in neighborhoods where these sites are established, deteriorating quality of life and leading to increase in homelessness, theft and violence,” the Staten Island Republican wrote, referring to similar policies enacted in foreign countries. “Subjecting Americans to such an experiment here in the United States is not only illegal, but cruel.”

Malliotakis cited a January 2021 federal court decision effectively blocking a safe injection site in Philadelphia as well.

“As the highest-ranking law enforcement official in the country,” she wrote to Garland, “it is imperative that you enforce this legal precedent.”

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