Vigil at One Police Plaza Held to Remember Friends and Family Members Lost to Overdose and Encourage NYPD to Join Overdose Prevention Efforts
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NEW YORK, NY – VOCAL-NY invited elected officials, family and friends of overdose victims, harm reduction specialists and treatment providers to participate in the 12th annual International Overdose Awareness Day. The event was commemorated with a press conference at City Hall, march to One Police Plaza and a vigil to honor overdose victims. New York was one of dozens of cities around the world participating the international day of action to honor victims of overdose fatalities, educate the public about the growing global overdose crisis and highlight life saving solutions.
In New York City, accidental drug overdose is now the number one cause of accidental death, the 4th leading cause of early death (after heart disease, cancer and HIV/AIDS) and the third leading cause of all deaths among residents ages 25 to 34. Between 2004 and 2009, there was a 20% increase in overdose deaths due to prescription drug use according to a recent report by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH).
“Most overdose deaths are preventable if emergency services are contacted immediately,” said Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard N. Gottfried, sponsor of the law. “The number one reason people don’t call for emergency services for an overdose is fear of getting arrested. We want to end drug and alcohol abuse, but not by having overdose victims die. The whole point of ending drug and alcohol abuse is to protect life, not destroy it.”
To address this barrier, the New York State legislature passed the “911 – Good Samaritan Law” in 2011 by a near unanimous vote. The law provides limited immunity from arrest and prosecution for victims and witnesses who call 911 during a perceived drug overdose — even if they possess small amounts of drugs (including alcohol in the case of minors). Governor Cuomo signed the innovative measure into law last September. Nine states now have similar laws, including Illinois, New Mexico, and Florida. A similar bill is on the desk of California Governor Jerry Brown.
Advocates and those impacted by overdose called for greater education about overdose prevention and proper implementation of the 911 Good Samaritan law. Despite passage of the law, its implementation – including dissemination of materials educating the public about preventable drug overdose and the new law – has been slow. Without more education about this law, more people will needlessly die from overdose, say the advocates.
“Fear of law enforcement is the primary reason people don’t pick up the phone to make that most important call to 911 to save a life,” said Robert Suarez – VOCAL member and harm reduction worker at Washington Heights Corner Project. “If the NYPD wants to be partners in saving lives, the best thing they could do would be for Commissioner Kelly himself to go on the radio waves to tell New Yorkers to call 911 during an overdose and that they do not need to fear arrest.”
Additionally, advocates called on New York State to expand its program of training those at risk of overdose and equipping them with the opioid reversal drug, Narcan (alson known as Naloxone). New York has been the national leader in overdose prevention programs over the past five years with their comprehensive overdose prevention education program, training thousands and successfully reversing of hundreds of potentially fatal overdoses in New York State since 2006.
“Accidental overdose is a deadly — and entirely preventable — killer in today’s society,” said New York City Council Member Stephen Levin. “Increasing awareness today and every day as we remember our loved ones allows their stories and memories to play a vital role in how we move forward. “Forward-thinking legislation that allows individuals to get the help they need is a dynamic first step in combatting accidental overdose.”
“We couldn’t save those we are commemorating today, but I envision a New York City where these preventable deaths are a thing of the past,” said Jerome Sanchez, a member of VOCAL-NY and harm reduction specialist at New York Harm Reduction Educators. “To make that future reality, we need resources dedicated to informing the public, especially those at high risk of overdose, about the 911 Good Samaritan law.”
Immediately following the press conference, friends and family marched to One Police Plaza and held a vigil to honor those lost to overdose. Advocates called on the police to help implement the 911 Good Samaritan law by publicizing that they will not arrest people for possession of drugs in overdose situations. Their public support would help address the number one reason that people delay or do not call for medical help during an overdose — fear of criminal justice involvement. By publicizing their support for the 911 Good Samaritan overdose prevention law and committing to overdose prevention education, the police will send a message to those in overdose situations that it is okay to call 911 to save lives.
“Today, we honor the memories of loved ones lost to overdose by making sure that we do everything possible to end preventable fatal drug overdose,” said Evan Goldstein, Policy Coordinator with the Drug Policy Alliance. “We have come a long way in reducing needless overdose deaths in our state, but our work is not over until we get to zero. Our state is a leader in promoting programs to reduce overdose death, but to reach our goal we must we can learn from others – including other countries – about what works to prevent overdose death.”
Advocates also invited New Yorkers to participate in the event by Tweeting memories of loved ones lost to overdose with the hashtag #OD12 or to upload photos of themselves wearing purple ribbons signifying support for overdose prevention.
International Overdose Awareness Day, started by the Salvation Army in Australia in 2001, has been an opportunity for people around the world to publicly mourn loved ones. Many participating countries also use this day to send a strong message to people who currently and formerly used drugs that their lives are valued and that no one should ever die from a preventable drug overdose.