De Blasio Moves on Safer Consumption Spaces to Curb Overdoses

BY NATHAN RILEY | A multi-year push in New York City to offer drug users a safe place for consuming their drugs seems destined for success after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his support for “overdose prevention centers.”

Public health advocates voiced enthusiasm as the news spread on May 3 that the administration had reached out to Dr. Howard Zucker, the state health commissioner, for a go-ahead to open four Safer Consumption Spaces in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn.

Brooklyn City Councilmember Stephen Levin, the chair of the General Welfare Committee who was arrested the day before in a sit-in on Lower Broadway opposite City Hall to push de Blasio to act, tweeted: “Where others look down upon our most vulnerable we will show love and a path towards recovery.”

Thanking the mayor, Levin added, “This will save lives.”

After months of protests, mayor rolls out plan with significant political, health institution support

De Blasio’s action came in the wake of a city health department study of this approach toward curbing drug overdoses funded by the City Council in 2016 and completed this past December.

The mayor set conditions that likely will easily be satisfied. He sought support from the city’s district attorneys, and Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Jr., and Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez immediately signaled their endorsements via Twitter.

“In the midst of an overdose crisis, we cannot sit by and let ppl die when there are proven interventions that can save live,” Gonzalez wrote, while Vance said, “We are proud to support the Mayor’s proposal to establish Overdose Prevention Centers. Thanks for your leadership.”

Darcel Clark, the Bronx DA, has held meetings on the intervention but remains hesitant unlike her peers, saying only that she has an “open mind.” Clark faces the voters for reelection in 2019, while Vance and Gonzalez won four year terms this past November.

In a written statement, Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker who initially pushed the proposal in 2016 when he chaired the Health Committee and got $100,00 put into the budget to have the health department carry out the study, said, “We thank Mayor de Blasio for taking this brave, important, and necessary step.”

Johnson, who is gay and HIV-positive, often expresses sympathy for those who have died from drug overdoses, mentioning his own history with alcohol and drug use, from which he has been in recovery for years.

“Too many people have died from opioids and heroin,” he said. “These sites will save lives and connect addicts with treatment options and trained professionals that could lead them to recovery. This is an issue that has deep personal significance to me.”

The US Justice Department has issued quasi-official opinions that Safer Consumption Spaces are illegal, but the mayor, by establishing the sites as temporary research programs, believes Zucker has the legal authority to approve their operation.

In the de Blasio administration’s letter to Zucker, Dr. Herminia Palacio, the deputy mayor for health and human services, asked “for immediate steps under Public Health Law to license a pilot research study.” The license would “include the possession of controlled substances.” She cited as precedent the pilot research that authorized needle exchanges whose distribution of sterile syringes brought dramatic reductions in new HIV infections among injection drug users.

In examining the city’s request, Zucker can count on the strong support of Chelsea State Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, who chairs the Health Committee.

“The Mayor’s announcement is an important step and a testament to the hard work of public health advocates on this issue,” Gottfried said in an email to Gay City News, adding, “Supervised injection facilities are an effective harm reduction strategy and a place where people can be connected with appropriate health care and social services.”

A letter to de Blasio from Charles King, president of Housing Works, the AIDS services group, demonstrates the quiet persuasion — that was coupled with loud protests from advocates, as well — that got city leaders behind this project. King was writing in his capacity as chair of Research for a Safer New York, Inc., a consortium of syringe exchanges that have found themselves treating overdoses and assisting clients who have injected in their facilities’ bathrooms.

This consortium will be the contractor managing the overdose prevention centers, with Dr. Holly Hagan, an epidemiologist at NYU, overseeing the research effort. NYU has agreed to have its Institutional Review Board evaluate the study design.

The mayor acted after the four city councilmembers where the initial four overdose prevention centers will be sited had already endorsed the idea. Johnson and Levin, in particular, had voiced considerable frustration with de Blasio’s slow pace of acting on the issue.

In Upper Manhattan, the Washington Heights Corner Project has agreed to sign a contract with the consortium. Liz Evans, a founder of the Vancouver Needle Exchange in Canada that opened in 2003, is on staff there. Mark Levine, the chair of the City Council Health Committee and a supporter of SCS, represents the district that includes the Corner Project.

St. Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction, where this writer was formerly chair of the board, participated in the Bronx Opioid Community Summit on April 21. At the meeting, Councilmember Rafael Salamanca, who represents the district where St. Ann’s is located, gave a moving talk about growing up in the Bronx where drug use was common and visible. He emphasized the opportunity to bring change to people’s lives through love and compassion. His remarks, which included his endorsement of Safer Consumption Spaces, drew a standing ovation.

The other participating needle exchanges are run by Housing Works, in Midtown West, in Johnson’s district, and VOCAL-NY, which has space within walking distance of Atlantic Avenue-Barclay Center subway complex. Levin is the councilmember for that district.

In testimony before the Council’s Budget Committee in February, Dr. Mary Bassett, the city health commissioner, said the scientific evidence that these facilities stop fatal overdoses is “clear.”

Drug users, especially those taking opioids, frequently overdose, but in Safer Consumption Spaces they receive assistance in breathing with doses of naloxone, a public health wonder drug. A plastic nozzle is used to squirt the medication into a user’s nostril and the opioid is inhibited and normal breathing is restored. In Safer Consumption Spaces worldwide — located in more than 100 cities — there have been no reported fatalities.

In upstate Ithaca, Mayor Svante Myrick and the City Council have already approved a Safer Consumption Space. Philadelphia and San Francisco are also moving forward on this approach, though no such facility is yet in operation in the US.

According to Politico, the number of overdose deaths in New York City hit a record 1,441 in 2017, with 80 percent of them from opioids.

Even as Housing Works’ King lauded de Blasio, he expressed frustration about how long it took to get to this day.

“Housing Works is thrilled that Mayor de Blasio has stepped up to do the right thing, and given the skyrocketing rates of overdose in New York City, we only wish this administration’s support for an intervention that we have long known to save lives had come sooner,” he said in a written statement, adding, “One thing we have learned from years of fighting the AIDS epidemic is that harm reduction works.”

This article was posted on  on May 4, 2018

What to Make of Heroin Deaths


BY NATHAN RILEY | Philip Seymour Hoffman’s end was no anomaly. Overdose deaths have risen dramatically in New York City and the nation. He is one among thousands.

The fact that he was the object of critical accolades was also not unusual. Hoffman was a high-performing heroin user — Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, John Belushi, and Robert Downey, Jr., are other celebrities who spring to mind in that regard. Famous yes, but perhaps more to the point, they have all been acclaimed for their exceptional artistry.

Hoffman’s death reminds us that drug use cannot be attributed solely to poverty. It’s not just a Bronx problem. It may affect homeless members of the transgender community, but it also has its impact on affluent gay white men. In fact, the rate of drug poisoning deaths involving heroin among white New Yorkers (8.9 per 100,000) in 2012 was higher than among Hispanics, at 6.2, or blacks, at 4.6. Well-to-do neighborhoods in the city experienced a 300 percent increase in heroin deaths between 2010 and 2012. It is a racist myth to say that the black and brown are plagued by drug use, which in turn drives crime. People — including criminals — like their drugs, regardless of skin color or socioeconomic status.

Stigmatizing of users, crackdown on prescription pain meds aggravate a problem for which progress is possible

Nor is it unusual that Hoffman’s death is used to reinforce the misleading legend that heroin causes misery. It is likely that Hoffman took drugs seeking relief from some form of misery in his life. You will seldom read a word about the pleasure Hoffman might have found in heroin or the attractions of opioid use generally — an allure that persists in the face of government sanctions and social hostility.

Ignoring the pleasures people find in taking drugs hampers drug education. The relentless focus on the harms doesn’t really help the group that matters the most — those individuals who experience a revelation when they use drugs, a moment that tells them this is something they want in their lives. The exclusive focus on harm makes it harder for users to relate those warnings to their own experiences and, in turn, to devise strategies for coping. And it makes it harder for the rest of us to understand the pleasure these individuals experience and to develop any feeling of solidarity with them.

For health workers, Hoffman’s death offers a chance to talk about Naloxone. That drug is to overdoses what a defibrillator is to heart attacks. Take it and in a matter of minutes breathing is restored. Opiate poisoning leaves a person incapacitated, so typically a bystander must inject the antidote. An ingenious innovation now permits injection without using needles. A piece of plastic with a foam tip, attached to a syringe, fits into the nose. Injecting half the solution into each nostril allows normal breathing to resume within two to five minutes.

With training anyone can use Naloxone, and Dr. Sharon Stancliff, a physician at the Harm Reduction Coalition, believes the treatment should become more easily accessible. That’s the goal of new legislation in Albany that would allow people who might observe an overdose to have Naloxone at the ready and be trained in its use. According to a memorandum prepared by the bill’s legislative sponsors, the measure would make Naloxone available to “a family member, friend, or other person in a position to assist a person experiencing an opioid-related overdose and allow them to store and dispense” it. People close to drug users are in the best position to be on hand when an antidote needs to be administered.

Unlike the uncertainty that surrounds so many efforts at drug law reform, it’s a good bet this bill will pass. Even before Hoffman’s death brought heroin overdose foursquare before the public, Republicans and Democrats had reached agreement. “Strengthening access is the best tool we have to prevent overdose deaths,” according to Bronx Democratic Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, the measure’s sponsor. Dinowitz is optimistic; the Senate sponsor is a Republican and the chair of the Health Committee, Long Island’s Kemp Hannon.

But the bill is not a panacea; barriers remain. Methadone and buprenorphine are highly regarded substitutes for heroin, but patients using them are typically drug-tested. If other drugs are found, they might be forced to leave the treatment program, an irrational response similar to a weight control program forcing a person out for going off their diet. In general, the obsessive search for drug abstinence creates difficulties for programs offering services to users — and a person cut off from a heroin substitute is likely to become an injecting user once more. The use of drug testing also generates suspicion between the program and its clients, making it difficult for them to take charge of their health. Program members typically want to be non-judgmental but the rules may force them in the other direction.

Another significant factor in the current heroin picture is the recent crackdown on prescriptions of Oxycontin and other drugs containing opioids. From 2006 until 2010, overdose deaths declined an average of 22 percent a year, but after 2010 a dramatic reversal occurred. By 2012, deaths had risen from 541 to 730. By then, Staten Island had become the center of the Oxycontin epidemic, with the highest rate of overdoses in the five boroughs. Education meetings in the borough were welcomed enthusiastically, but the level of ignorance, while understandable, was scary. Audience members had no idea that Oxy was related to heroin. That a “good drug” prescribed by a doctor shares traits similar to those of a “bad” drug like heroin was a revelation.

Supplies of such prescriptions have since been restricted. This may reduce overdose deaths from Oxycontin, but it also means users will switch to heroin, use of which was already on the rise when the prescription curbs took effect.

Shutting off access to Oxycontin no longer seems an obvious solution. A drug that is created in an underworld where potency varies radically and is injected by users replaced a pharmaceutical pill that delivers a uniform dose. And, going from pills to injection is a social initiation into a community of hard-core drug users. The newbie has to identify suppliers and then be taught how to inject. According to Joyce Rivera, the executive director of St. Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction in the Bronx, this process changes a person’s social life and increases their health risks.

The displacement of prescription opioids by heroin may be undercutting the drug education efforts and outreach in Staten Island. An effort that was directed at pill users must now be adapted for needle users. Staten Island is already the part of the city where needle exchange programs are least available.

Though trading reduced use of opioid prescriptions for increases in needle intake of drugs has little to recommend it, greater heroin use is something that must now be confronted. St. Ann’s (where, full disclosure, I formerly served as the chair of the board of directors) has drafted a report called a drug users’ need assessment that found injecting users in the Bronx no longer have access to abandoned buildings. With economic conditions improving in the borough, users are once again shooting up in public — in hallways, alleys, and parks. The conditions are unsanitary, infections are up, and a hazard is created from needles being discarded in public places.

St. Ann’s is asking the New York State AIDS Institute to support safer injecting facilities (SIF), rooms with a nurse present where a user, after purchasing their drugs in the illegal market, can inject in a peaceful and sanitary environment. Rather than being rushed, a shooter can use the alcohol wipes and clean syringes that reduce infection. SIFs are entry points for education and assistance in helping drug users manage their lives. More than 90 SIFs are in place in Europe, Canada, and Australia, where they are a part of the overall repertoire of harm reduction options, as discussed in a publication by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Abuse available at According to the Centre, “the facilities reach their target population and provide immediate improvements through better hygiene and safety conditions for injectors.”

“Immediate improvement.” How often can we say that about a drug program?

No one is saying Hoffman would have been saved, but if somebody in his situation had the opportunity of using such a facility, an overdose might turn out to be an incident not a fatality.