NYC’s Safe Drug Injection Sites Saved 15 Lives in First Week of Operation

At least fifteen lives have been saved, so far, after the nation’s first supervised illegal drug injection sites opened in New York City about a week ago. Clean needles, the opioid reversal medication Naloxone, and medical care are all available at these facilities. This comes at a time when the number of Americans dying from overdoses has risen to more than 100,000 in the first year. The New York facilities were the first to be approved by the government. However, advocates have long fought for safer resources for those suffering from addiction. In fact, there are more than 120 drug injection centers worldwide. Kassandra Frederique is the executive director of Drug Policy Alliance. She says that safe drug prevention sites can be effective tools to keep people who use marijuana alive, especially in Black communities and Latino communities, which face the additional threat of mass incarceration due to decades of discriminatory policies.

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AMY GOODMAN:This is Democracy Now! I am Amy Goodman with Juan González. Officials in New York City claim that nine lives have been saved since the opening of two new supervised drug injection sites. The facilities have been approved by the US government and are the first of its kind in the United States. They are being built at a time when the number of Americans dying from overdoses has surpassed 100,000 in the first years of the pandemic. Clean needles are available at these locations. They can also administer Naloxone, an opioid reverse medication. They also provide medical care and treatment options to drug dependency. Advocates have long advocated for safer and better resources for addicts. More than 120 drug injection centers are currently operating around the globe.

For more information, Kassandra Frederique is our Executive Director of Drug Policy Alliance. This national nonprofit fights to end the War on Drugs. Kassandra, welcome to Democracy Now!Describe what is happening at these locations. These are illegal drug injection locations that have been approved by New York City. They are the first in the nation.

KASSANDRA FREDERIQUE:Thank you so much. Yes, these overdose prevent centers are places where people inject publicly. We encourage them to visit these places so they can learn injection strategies that reduce the risks and have conversations about the substances they use.

This is partly because our current drug supply is being contaminated with fentanyl, a faster-acting opioid. When this happens, and the drug supply is contaminated with fentanyl, people overdose and die faster. This is why we are seeing such an increase in overdose deaths. With these overdose prevention centers, people are being able to use under supervision, therefore if someone is overdosing, there is a greater chance — people will be able to revive them. The latest stats show that 15 people were saved in the first six days of these sites being open. We are seeing that number increase every day.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ:I wanted to inquire about the general implications of the epidemic of drug overdose deaths the nation is currently experiencing. Back in the 1970s — I think Richard Nixon launched his War on Drugs in 1971. I believe that the number of overdose deaths per year in the 1970s during the heroin epidemic was around 7,000. In the 1980s, during the peak of the crack cocaine epidemic in America, the number of overdose deaths was lower than 9,000 per year. Now we’re dealing with 100,000 in a 12-month period according to the CDCTen times more people are dying from drug overdoses now than in the 1970s or 1980s. What are the implications of this for public health? How does government policy change?

KASSANDRA FREDERIQUE:This is an important point. The thing we should be focusing on is the role of criminalization in exacerbating public health crises. The current situation is only being exacerbated by mass incarceration and policies that are more focused on controlling than public health. We can see that the current moment is policy-created when we look back at the 1970s heroin crisis, think about the role played by methadone, think about who has access to it, and consider the insidious disparities in racial access. These are the consequences of our policies. We are now in a place where these prevention centres are about us creating more tools for dealing with the problem that our policy-makers have created.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ:The demographics of drug overdoses were clearly concentrated in the inner cities of African Americans and Latinos back in the 1970s and 80s. Now this epidemic started really in the rural areas and has moved into the cities, hasn’t it? It started primarily among the poor and working-class whites. Now, it is expanding to the black and brown communities.

KASSANDRA FREDERIQUE:It has been more of a mixture. Although it has been predominantly rural white people who have been affected by overdoses, I believe that part of the reason you have seen a marshaling is that this was also hitting middle-class, well-resourced white people. That is what gets the government and the status quo to respond, is because there is also a class as well as race implication that’s happening, which has marshaled the kind of response that you have seen.

What we’re seeing now is that there is a dramatic increase of the overdose crisis hitting Black and Latino communities in this country. In New York, where we opened the overdose prevention centre, Black New Yorkers had both the highest overdose death rate and the greatest absolute increase in rate between 2019-2020. So we’re seeing such a dramatic increase. There have been studies that have shown that — there have been four states in the United States, at a study that was run out of Columbia, where Ohio, Kentucky, New York, where they have the highest overdose rates — the increase is happening among Black communities. And there are multiple states — there was another study that showed that in states like West Virginia, Washington, D.C., Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, these places, the Black opioid overdose death rate is higher than white folks.

So it is really important for us to recognize — and also this is what history shows — there’s no crisis that is happening in the United States that is solely going to impact white folks. We will see a dramatic rise in the devastation to communities of color if white people are impacted. Advocates insist on the fact that when this happens, the pendulum swings quickly back to criminalization. At the federal level, we are witnessing this with the Biden administration pushing for the criminalization of Fentanyl. As advocates, we know that if that happens, the public-health push will cease and criminalization will take its place. So it’s really important for us to have a conversation about how we need to keep public health at the center and at the forefront of our strategy in order to make sure that we do not continue the policies that have put us in this situation in the first place.

AMY GOODMAN:Can you talk about the global position? Since the 1980s, Europe has had safer consumption areas. Since 2003, Canada has had a similar program. Around 120 sites operate around the globe. New York now has the first legal injection site. This is something that San Francisco, Boston, and Washington state are now considering. These safe spaces are free from police and incarceration. Talk about how it contributes to ending war on drugs.

KASSANDRA FREDERIQUE:We want to keep people alive. The War on Drugs is a war on individuals, as many have stated before. We need our loved ones to be there with us in order to win. This includes those who use drugs. And I want to be really clear — these are the first sanctioned overdose prevention centers. People who use drugs have been fighting for their lives for a very long time. This is due to a deep history and strategy for harm reduction. People who used drugs were the first to advocate for people who use drugs to have clean equipment, such as sterile syringes. They have been operating these types of facilities for a long period to save each others. This is our attempt to help them bring it out from the underground. We want to make sure we can provide an infusion of resources so that we can have meaningful conversations about how we can keep our loved ones safe.

Often times when we have these conversations, people are focusing on, “We want to get people to stop using drugs. We want people to return back to our lives.” What we have consistently heard from people who use drugs is that they need things to slow down around them. Overdose prevention centres offer the chance to give people who have used drugs the resources, the time, and the consultation to help them look at their choices and make the connections that are best for them. I would suggest that we use this opportunity to think about how to center the needs of drug users, how to listen to them, and how to create resources that are anchored to that.

AMY GOODMAN:Kassandra Frederique is the Executive Director of Drug Policy Alliance. Thank you so much. Juan and I hope you’ll join us tonight for the virtual celebration marking Democracy Now’s25th anniversary at 8 p.m. Eastern Time We will be speaking with Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, Martín Espada, Winona LaDuke, Arundhati Roy, Danny Glover, Danny DeVito and more. I’m Amy Goodman with Juan González.