Southern Tier advocates, elected officials react to supervised drug-injection sites in New York City

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DARRYL DYCK/ASSOCIATED PRESS

A registered nurse holds a tray of supplies to be used at the safe-injection clinic in Vancouver, B.C., operating since 2003. (DARRYL DYCK/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — Two sites opened in New York City a few weeks ago, where people can use their own drugs while a medical professional watches over them and intervenes in the case of an overdose. Some people in the Southern Tier see these sites as a way to save lives, but others say it enables drug use.

These safe consumption sites, also called supervised injection or overdose prevention sites, are the first in the U.S. These sites started in Europe decades ago, and have since opened in Australia and Canada. Studies show they reduce public drug use and the spread of diseases like HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis. They also offer other health care and social services.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 100,306 people in the U.S. died from an overdose between April 2020 and April 2021, a 28% increase from the year before.

Looking back to look ahead

Back in 1992, a syringe exchange program opened in New York City, where people who inject illegal drugs, insulin, or hormones can safely dispose of their needles and get new ones. According to the CDC, syringe exchanges “play an important role in reducing the transmission of viral hepatitis, HIV and other infections.”

The Southern Tier AIDS Program (STAP) opened their first syringe exchange program in Ithaca in 2002.

“I hope that it doesn’t take a decade for an overdose prevention site to open here,” said John Barry, Executive Direction of STAP, which also offers syringe exchange in Johnson City and Norwich.

John Barry outside of STAP offices in 2019. (Sarah Gager/WSKG Public Media)

But Barry expressed the reception to a consumption site is not as open in the Southern Tier as it is in New York City. He added some people still oppose the decade old syringe exchange programs.

“Clearly what we are doing now is not working,” said Barry. “What more can we do to preserve the lives of people who are dying? Because that’s the place we’re at.”

Barry said he sees consumption sites as another harm reduction tool, to save people from an overdose and then offer addiction treatment services, and hopes the sites downstate will give him leverage toward opening them upstate.

He does not want to wait for people who are addicted to “hit bottom” before there is intervention.

“Because ‘the bottom’ for many people at this point in history, with a poisoned drug supply, is death. And that’s the bottom I think nobody wants their friend or loved one to hit.” Cocaine and methamphetamine laced with fentanyl, a synthetic and deadly opioid, has contributed to the rise in fatal overdoses.

Barry also recognized the grassroots efforts of organizations in laying the foundation for the consumption sites to exist by engaging the community, including the police department.

In a legal gray zone

“The City of New York has decided their way to combat the opioid crisis is to open up supervised injection sites. The legality of this is in doubt. And it’s almost as if they’ve given up,” said Assemblyman Joe Angelino (R-122).

(Photo courtesy Joe Angelino)

Angelino was speaking at a press conference earlier this month with other Republican elected officials who are opposed to state bail reform laws enacted in 2019. The law eliminates cash bail for most non-violent crimes, but does not allocate any additional funds for treatment programs.

He also criticized the closure of the Willard Drug Treatment Campus in Seneca County which offered drug treatment to people incarcerated there. It closed along with five other state prisons earlier this year.

Drug consumption sites are illegal to operate. The two downstate are functioning in a legal gray zone, with NYPD agreeing to not arrest people who visit the sites and most district attorneys declining to prosecute them.

The programs are backed by the current mayor, Bill De Blasio, and the incoming mayor, Eric Adams. STAP’s Barry noted this is different from how police behave around their facilities. He alleged officers wait for people to leave and then pull them over. He added the intimidation of possible arrest keeps people from using STAP’s harm reduction services.

Assemblyman Angelino carries Narcan, the overdose reversing drug. He said he wants to save lives, but it seems some policymakers are just accepting a future where drug use continues. He said he would not be surprised to see legislation regarding the legality of consumption sites in New York State introduced within the year.

Back in 2017, legislation to legalize drug consumption sites was rejected by the GOP-led State Senate. At the time, Sen. Fred Akshar (NY-52) said it would never garner his support and introduced a proposal to ban them. He is currently running for Broome County sheriff against Kathleen Newcomb.

Hopes for “safe consumption” in Ithaca

Officials in Ithaca have discussed opening a drug consumption site for years. Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick said he is thrilled about the sites downstate.

Celia Clarke/WSKG Public Media

Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick in the WSKG Ithaca studio. September 19, 2019. (Celia Clarke/WSKG Public Radio)

“Anywhere the sites are open, not only do you see fewer needle debris on the streets and in playgrounds and public bathrooms, you see fewer overdoses, fewer people dying,” said Myrick. “And more people successfully entering treatment.”

He added data from sites in other countries shows reduced crime in the surrounding areas.

Myrick has asked the state to approve Ithaca’s pilot program to open a site there. If a legal pathway is cleared, STAP has expressed interest in running the Ithaca facility.

SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential service for people with substance use disorders and their families. More information can be found here.