BUFFALO, NY - A coalition called “End Overdose NY” is lobbying for a bill in the New York Assembly that would authorize safe injection sites to operate legally in New York State.
On average, nearly seven people die from opioid-related deaths each week in Erie County, and early last year, seven people died in just one day from suspected heroin overdoses, according to Eric County Executive Mark Poloncarz.
End Overdose NY’s bill outlines a safer, perhaps unconventional way to deal with the opioid crisis, in the form of these sites. Their bill highlights benefits including prioritizing compassion and humanity, limiting engagement between law enforcement and people who use drugs and advancing research. Sites would have sterile needles available, staff with the drug ‘Narcan’ readily on-hand in case of overdose, and reading materials about drug addiction and information on help to quit.
Kenneth Leonard, Director of the Research Institute on Addictions at University at Buffalo, explained some pros and cons to opening a site in Buffalo.
“First, it's important to understand that a lot of the deaths we have now are because of [heroin and fentanyl] overdoses,” Leonard said. “While it's possible to rescue those people in the community if Narcan is available, a lot of times there's not Narcan available.”
Also, addicts may get professional help they may not seek otherwise.
“You [would] actually have the medical community in contact with the user community, and that opens up opportunities with moving them into treatment. A number of the places that have been open for a while do see people moving from going to inject... to moving into treatment.”
The bill has 16 sponsors in the New York State Senate so far, all are democrats. Buffalo Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes is a co-sponsor.
"If we don't fix this disease, we're losing people rapidly,” Peoples-Stokes said.
The Department of Health spokesperson Ben Rosen released a statement earlier to 2 On Your Side:
“New York State has been reviewing the issue of supervised injection facilities and is looking at all options to deal with the ongoing opioid epidemic. It’s thoughtful discussions like the one held today in Albany that will help inform the state’s position.”
This is not the first time these sites have been discussed in Buffalo.
Last May, a green tent popped up in Lafayette Square as part of a traveling demonstration by the Drug Policy Alliance. The tent had “I SUPPORT SAFER CONSUMPTION” emblazoned on the side.
Dr. Gale Burstein, Erie County Health Commissioner, has not historically supported this legislation.
“Safer consumption spaces (SCS)/Supervised Injection Facilities (SIF) are one of the harm reduction tools in the toolbox to prevent opioid related overdose deaths,” Burstein said in a statement last May.
Burstein cited challenges such as cost and legality.
What do safe injection sites look like? Take a look at Vancouver to find out.
Vancouver, Canada has had a safe injection site within the city for 14 years. The site provides a safe space for addicts with, semi-private, lit booths, sterile needles and staff on hand available if anyone overdoses. On the day a Seattle Times reporter visited the site, this happened three times. Each time, the person was revived.
While Vancouver is much larger than Buffalo, the opioid crisis has been hitting home. New York has had a 71 percent increase in opioid-related deaths from 2010 to 2015, according to the Rockefeller Institute of Government.
Ithaca, NY brought this conversation to a statewide level in early 2016 when its mayor, Svante Myrick, created “The Ithaca Plan,” a 58-page proposal to address the heroin addiction problem in Ithaca. This proposal included housing, education, job-training, criminal justice solutions and controversial safe injection sites.
Part of Myrick’s faith in the plan comes from statistics in Vancouver, which is the only city in North America with an established site. Although Maryland, Vermont, California, Maine and Massachusetts have all introduced legislation for safe injection sites.
“Two-million injections at that site. Zero overdose deaths, and that’s just inside the facility. In a 16-block radius, overdose deaths went down 35 percent,” Myrick told 2 On Your Side in 2016, shortly after the Ithaca Plan was introduced.
Responses to his plan ranged from disbelief and contention, to overwhelming support, which reflects how many have reacted to this idea when proposed everywhere.
“It does convey this message that, ‘Yeah, we're OK with people using heroin’ and striking that balance between the health concerns and concerns for people dying, as well as not wanting to encourage further use of heroin or any of the opioids - is a really difficult job,” Leonard said.