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US’s First Safe Drug Consumption Sites Are Already Saving Lives By Stopping Dozens Of Overdoses In Less Than A Month, NYC Officials Say

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New York City officials say the nation’s first sanctioned safe consumption sites for illegal drugs have already saved dozens of lives since they launched late last month. Meanwhile, there are new positive signs for advocates in a pending federal court case on the harm reduction measure.

In New York, the overdose prevention centers—where people can use currently illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment where they can receive treatment resources—have averted at least 59 overdoses and been utilized more than 2,000 times, the New York City Health Department announced on Tuesday.

The initial results are “promising” and show how the facilities “reduce needless suffering and avoidable death,” Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi said in a press release. “The simple truth is that Overdose Prevention Centers save lives—the lives of our neighbors, family and loved ones.”

Advocates have long argued that safe consumption sites could help combat the nation’s overdose epidemic while simultaneously destigmatizing substance misuse disorders and giving people the tools they need to enter treatment.

“We are meeting people who use drugs where they are in their life journey to support them in building their self-worth,” said Sam Rivera, executive director of OnPoint NYC, which is providing the services. “In celebrating life, we are humanizing people often not treated as human.”

Also, on Monday, the New York City Board of Health unanimously approved a resolution that touts evidence supporting the efficacy of a harm reduction approach to drug use and endorses the city’s move to authorize safe consumption sites.

It also urges “the federal government and New York State provide authorization of such overdose prevention centers and continue to expand funding and support for harm reduction services and medications for opioid use disorder treatment.”

While activists in several cities have attempted to establish these centers, New York City became the first. The launch also comes in the background of a legal challenge: a Philadelphia non-profit, Safehouse, was blocked from opening its own safe consumption facilities following a Justice Department lawsuit that was filed under the Trump administration.

In October, the Supreme Court rejected a request to hear a case on the legality of establishing the facilities, but the case is still before a lower court and advocates are eagerly waiting for a DOJ response to show where the agency decides to come down on the issue under the Biden administration.

Under a mutual agreement between federal officials and Safehouse, the deadline for the administration to submit their position was pushed back on Tuesday until March 7, 2022. It had previously been extended to November 5 of this year. Advocates see that as a positive sign.

“By extending the government’s response deadline to March 7, 2022, Safehouse is optimistic that continued conversations will lead to a mutually satisfactory resolution,” the organization said on Wednesday. “Fingers crossed for all good things in the New Year.”

The White House drug czar, Rahul Gupta, recently said that it’s critical to explore “any and every option” to reduce overdose deaths, and that could include allowing safe consumption sites for illegal substances if the evidence supports their efficacy.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) director previously said that he couldn’t talk about the harm reduction centers due to the ongoing litigation related to Safehouse, but he seemed more open to the possibility in the recent interview with CNN.

The secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Xavier Bacerra, also recently signaled that the Biden administration would not move to block the establishment safe injection sites, stressing that “we are literally trying to give users a lifeline.”

But a department spokesperson later walked those remarks back, stating that “HHS does not have a position on supervised consumption sites” and the “issue is a matter of ongoing litigation.” In any case, it would be up to DOJ to decide whether to pursue operators of the facilities under the Controlled Substances Act.

Bacerra was among eight top state law enforcement officials who filed an amicus brief in support of the Safehouse’s safe injection site plan when he served as California’s attorney general.

The Biden administration has generally promoted the concept of harm reduction as part of its drug policy, but it hasn’t formally weighed in on safe consumption sites in particular.

Advocates have put the current situation in no uncertain terms. They say the harm reduction centers could mean the difference between life and death for countless Americans who consume currently illegal drugs.

The early data out of New York City signals that the facilities could prevent significant more deaths than the health department projected. Its feasibility study found the safe consumption sites could save as many as 130 lives per year.

The legal complication for these harm reduction sites is principally related to a so-called federal “crack house statute” that makes it a felony to use a location for the manufacturing, distribution or consumption of controlled substances.

A coalition of 80 current and former prosecutors and law enforcement officials—including one who is Biden’s pick for U.S. attorney of Massachusetts—previously filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to take up Safehouse’s safe consumption case.

While New York City is the first to open the harm reduction centers, the governor of Rhode Island did sign a historic bill in July to establish a safe consumption site pilot program.

Massachusetts lawmakers advanced similar legislation last year, but it was not ultimately enacted.

A similar harm reduction bill in California, sponsored by Sen. Scott Wiener (D), was approved in the state Senate in April, but further action has been delayed until 2022.

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