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NYC opens two supervised injection sites in bid to stop drug overdoses

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's announcement comes months after a legal battle stopped a similar program in Philadelphia.

MANHATTAN (CN) — Two red automated external defibrillators hang side by side on a wall of one of the first supervised injection sites in the U.S. Above them, bold, blue letters in English and Spanish declare: “THIS SITE SAVES LVES.”

The image, shared to Facebook by the nonprofits that run the two sites, were posted around the same time the office of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the facilities would begin offering services.

Citing the more than 2,000 overdose deaths in the city during 2020, de Blasio said in a statement the supervised injection sites — also known as overdose-prevention centers — are the next step in quelling the opioid crisis.

“After exhaustive study, we know the right path forward to protect the most vulnerable people in our city. … I’m proud to show cities in this country that after decades of failure, a smarter approach is possible,” de Blasio said.

Representing an expansion of the services of two syringe service providers, the sites are designed to be places where individuals who use drugs can obtain medical care and onboard to social services and treatment, the mayor’s statement announces.

A study commissioned by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found that four such injection sites could prevent 130 deaths a year and save the city $7 million in medical costs.

The sites are just a portion of the city’s efforts to end drug overdoes. Because 77% of overdoses last year involved fentanyl, the city has distributed fentanyl test strips, for instance.

State Senator Robert Jackson, whose district includes Washington Heights, where one of the facilities is located, said he’s proud of the approach that allows individuals who use drugs to use them while supervised.

Not only is it a “humane approach,” the senator said, but it could reduce the number of syringes littering the area.

“For me, this is personal — I lost a sister to heroin in the 1970s who might still be with us if we’d had resources like these back then,” Jackson said.

Internationally, about 100 such facilities exist in Australia, Canada and Europe, according to a policy statement by the American Society of Addiction Medicine. According to the society, a study of an unsanctioned overdose prevention center in the U.S. showed a decrease in crime around it.

New York City’s move comes as other parts of the nation have sought to open similar facilities. In July, Rhode Island passed a law that launches a two-year pilot program for supervised injection sites. It goes into effect in March 2022 and is intended to help provide legal cover to the individual operating the facilities in the Ocean State.

In January, the Third Circuit put an end to Philadelphia’s effort to open an injection facility, ruling that federal law forbids facilities intended as places for individuals to consume controlled substances. No ifs, ands or buts.

When law professor Kristen Underhill outlined for the city the legal challenges in creating a supervised injection facility in 2018, the question of if federal prosecutors would use Controlled Substances Act against a facility loomed large in her analysis.

For instance, the federal “Crack House” statute threatens criminal penalties for individuals who knowingly maintain premises for drug use, noted Underhill, who was at Columbia Law School at the time.

“Although state legislative authorization may provide greatest certainty for a New York City (supervised injection facility), this pathway nonetheless leaves open questions about the federal response under the Controlled Substances Act … Legal challenges to a (supervised injection facility) on the basis of the CSA will depend on enforcement priorities and prosecutorial discretion,” Underhill wrote.

When emailed about this issue, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment.

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