National News

De Blasio Moves to Bring Safe Injection Sites to New York City

Posted May 3, 2018 5:21 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Mayor Bill de Blasio is championing a plan that would make New York City a pioneer in creating supervised injection sites for illegal drug users, part of a novel but contentious strategy to combat the epidemic of fatal overdoses caused by the use of heroin and other opioids.

Safe injection sites have been considered successful in cities in Canada and Europe, but do not yet exist in the United States. Leaders in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Seattle have declared their intention to create supervised sites, although none have yet done so because of daunting obstacles to such an endeavor. Among them: The sites would seem to violate federal law.

The endorsement of the strategy by New York, the largest city in the country, may give the movement behind it special impetus.

For the sites to open, New York City must still clear some significant hurdles. At a minimum, the plan calls for the support of several district attorneys, and, more critically, the State Health Department, which answers to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Although Cuomo and de Blasio are Democrats, they have engaged in a yearslong feud that has seen few examples of cooperation. Cuomo, who is facing an energetic primary challenge from Cynthia Nixon, has not said whether he supports injection sites, although state health officials have been open to the possibility.

The plan calls for four sites to open after a 6- to 12-month period of outreach to the communities where they will be located. They would operate as pilot programs for a year.

At the sites, which would be called Overdose Prevention Centers, trained staff would be available to administer medications, such as naloxone, to counteract drug overdoses. Social workers would also be on hand to possibly counsel drug users in the hope that they could be steered into programs intended to help them with their addiction.

The sites would be financed and run by nonprofit groups authorized by the city, and may be located within social service providers that already operate needle exchange sites.

“After a rigorous review of similar efforts across the world, and after careful consideration of public health and safety expert views, we believe overdose prevention centers will save lives and get more New Yorkers into the treatment they need to beat this deadly addiction,” de Blasio said in a statement.

De Blasio has faced pressure from activist groups who support safe injection sites, and who have staged demonstrations at City Hall that have included civil disobedience, with numerous protesters, including City Council members, arrested.

But even as the mayor unveiled his plan, he seemed to be doing so at arm’s length. On Thursday morning, he held a news conference on the sunny Brooklyn waterfront to discuss ferry service, with no mention of the injection sites.

A public announcement of the injection site plan had not been expected until Thursday evening at the earliest. City Hall officials declined to make de Blasio available for an interview.

The plan is based on a report commissioned in 2016 by the City Council and pushed by the Council speaker, Corey Johnson, when he was chairman of the health committee. The report was completed months ago but its release was delayed by City Hall as the mayor weighed his decision.

Deputy Mayor Herminia Palacio sent a letter on Thursday to Howard A. Zucker, the state health commissioner, asking him to authorize or license four injection sites. The letter said that Zucker had the authority to permit such sites if they were part of a “research study.”

“You are authorized to license research studies that may include the possession of controlled substances,” the letter said. It cited as a precedent the authorization by the state health commissioner of needle exchanges in the early 1990s. Those exchanges began as an effort to halt the spread of HIV among drug users who shared needles.

Palacio said in an interview that she has not previously discussed safe injection sites with Zucker.