Corey Johnson, the new speaker of the New York City Council, has previously supported the idea of creating safe injection sites for opioid users.
In 2016, the opioid epidemic claimed 1,374 lives in New York City. That’s roughly four drug overdose deaths each day. One death every seven hours.
It’s a harrowing statistic that continues to soar, and New York City officials are floating an idea that so far has not been tried in the United States: sanctioned locations where drug users can shoot up under the supervision of medical staff ready to revive them if they overdose.
They are called safe injection facilities, and the city has been eyeing them for more than a year, despite potential federal opposition.
In 2016, the City Council allocated $100,000 for the city health department to study the feasibility of the facilities, which already exist in Canada and Europe. Mayor Bill de Blasio hinted in late January that the report would soon be released.
At community meetings and among officials, the mere idea of the sites has generated a heated debate over their legality and their potential effect on the neighborhoods where they might be located.
Opponents of the idea fear that crime and drug use would increase and that the sites would attract drug dealers. Others say the government should not act to encourage drug use. Advocates argue that if addicts are going to inject themselves, they might as well do it in a safe environment where they can be saved if they overdose and possibly be connected with drug treatment services.
“We recognize that people are using drugs that are illegal and we also recognize that people are dying at astronomical rates,” said Kassandra Frederique, the New York director of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that wants to decriminalize drug use. “What is most important to us is saving lives.”
Supporters point to Vancouver’s safe injection facility, the first in North America, to highlight the positive effects. Fatal overdoses dropped by 35 percent in the neighborhood surrounding the site in the two years after it opened in 2003. Although activists say not a single person has died there, the city is still struggling with a spiraling increase in fentanyl-related deaths.
In New York, proponents of the idea insist the sites would keep dirty needles from littering the streets by keeping injections indoors. They say the facilities do not increase crime and drug use and reduce risk behaviors associated with hepatitis C and H.I.V. infection.
A bill introduced in the State Assembly by Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal, a Democrat of Manhattan, would help implement safe injection sites by providing immunity to the owners and workers and the drug users who walk in. The bill is still in committee and would likely face an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled State Senate.
“The sites are untried and untested in the U.S.,” Bridget G. Brennan, the special narcotics prosecutor in New York City, said. “The nation’s largest city hardly seems like an appropriate petri dish for such an experiment.”
The new City Council speaker, Corey Johnson, has supported the idea in the past and spearheaded the appropriations for the study when he chaired the council’s health committee. “Drug addiction is an escalating crisis in our communities, with significant implications for public health,” he said on Friday. “Safe injection sites could potentially provide a viable pathway to breaking the cycle of addiction, and I look forward to reviewing the findings of the study.”
The New York Police Department has not taken a position on the issue but is discussing it with the Department of Health.
James O’Neill, the police commissioner, said on Tuesday that his “mind is open, you know, this is — we’re talking about the sanctity of life here. Keeping people alive, but we also have real concerns about quality-of-life and crime issues around that site.”
The first safe injection facility opened in Switzerland in 1988. There are now more than 100 sites in more than 60 cities throughout the world, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. Recently, the idea of safe injection facilities has found a foothold in several cities nationwide dealing with skyrocketing overdose deaths.
San Francisco officials said two privately funded sites could open this summer. Philadelphia announced in January that it would begin a process to implement a site. In Seattle, council members appropriated $1.3 million to study and possibly implement the idea. The mayor of Ithaca, in the Finger Lakes region, proposed the idea in 2016.
Those cities, however, might end up clashing with the federal government.
The Department of Justice said in December that a proposed safe injection site in Vermont would violate federal law.
“It is a crime, not only to use illicit narcotics, but to manage and maintain sites on which such drugs are used and distributed,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office warned in a statement. “Rather than encourage and normalize heroin injection by affording a purportedly legal setting for use, the government must help addicts stop using.” Vermont has backed off the plan for now.
On Tuesday night, dozens of residents in Harlem sat in the pews of a Presbyterian church for a discussion on safe injection sites organized by the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association.
For more than an hour, residents bombarded a panel of elected officials, drug policy activists and police with technical questions about the idea. Later, neighbors took to the microphone, expressing their support or concerns.
“Bringing these addicts into a clean facility would actually get these addicts off the streets so we don’t see them,” Pat Miller, 56, said. “Your children won’t see them. You won’t step on their needles.”
Others were not as enthusiastic.
“I don’t think we should give incentive to bad behavior,” said a woman who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years and spoke publicly without giving her name. “I live here. I want to walk at night in a safe place. I want to be able to enjoy myself. I agree that they have to be treated. But I don’t agree they have to be treated right here.”
As the meeting began to wrap up, Will Robertson, a former drug user, chimed in. Mr. Robertson, 58, said that he got through his addiction when he met people who understood where he was coming from. He supports the facilities, he said, because the sites could introduce drug users to recovery coaches like himself, “people there to engage.”
He added: “I’ve been there, done that.”