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NEW YORK CITY – Today city and state elected officials and nearly 20 leading public policy and healthcare organizations rallied at City Hall to promote a compassionate public health approach to reduce overdose deaths and other harms associated with drug use. The event came on the heels of new data released by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene showing a 100% increase in heroin overdose deaths since 2010, and an overall 41% increase in drug deaths.
“Though these deaths are preventable, drug overdoses remain the leading cause of death from injuries in our city,” said NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett. “We know that a multipronged public health approach works, and we will continue to increase access to naloxone and improve access to treatment to save lives. The Health Department also wholeheartedly supports harm reduction programs, which every day do the important work of providing services such as syringe exchange, overdose prevention, hepatitis and HIV care, and linking people to drug treatment.”
A major theme of the event was recognition that solutions to the epidemic will be found in supportive, public health-based approaches, not in renewing ‘war on drugs’ style law enforcement.
“I fought hard to reverse the Rockefeller Drug Laws because I realized we needed public health-based solutions, said Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol (D-North Brooklyn). “As Chair of the Standing Committee on Codes, I have been tasked with dealing with the criminal justice aspect of drug policy and throughout my tenure I have found that criminalization is the wrong approach. We need public health policy that is responsive to the needs of drug users. We need social services that can support and steer people in the right direction towards sobriety. Bringing this conversation to the forefront is the only way to move closer to a solution, and I am happy to stand with my colleagues in supporting legislation that takes a public health approach to dealing with drug use.”
Council Member Corey Johnson, Chair of the Committee on Health echoed that sentiment, stating that “much remains in combating overdose, but NYC remains a national leader in developing public health strategies to address drug use and save lives, through harm reduction and drug treatment rather than criminalization. “We need an honest conversation about drug use and addiction that is based on compassion, dignity, and respect. By shifting the public narrative on drug use toward proven solutions we can remove stigma and other barriers to care.”
Speakers also linked overdose deaths to the need for broader reforms aimed at ending racial disparities in drug law enforcement. “For four decades, the drug war and “get tough on crime” policies led to mass incarceration of communities of color, and mass exclusion from the public health services and drug treatment proven to be more effective in combating addiction,” said Assembly Member Karim Camara (D-Brooklyn), chair of the Black, Puerto Rican, Latino and Asian Caucus. “I support this new direction our state is moving in. And I see a direct correlation with my own legislation to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, both due to the racially biased enforcement, and the wasted resources which could be better spent on health and social services.”
Although the latest data is troubling, many noted the substantial progress New York has already made in building the infrastructure and policies needed to support healthcare for people who use drugs. Among other steps, Governor Cuomo recently signed laws to improve insurance coverage of drug treatment and allow non-medical professionals to dispense the heroin overdose antidote naloxone without a prescriber present.
Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-Bronx) lauded increased naloxone access as one solution. “Drug overdoses are a major, and growing, problem in New York City and across the state,” he said, “and it is time to rethink the way we address them. Department of Health statistics show that deaths due to drug overdoses have risen substantially in New York City in each of the past three years. Of these, more than three quarters were caused by opioids, and over fifty percent were caused by heroin alone. That’s why I am proud to have authored legislation this past year to expand access to naloxone, a proven, effective antidote to heroin and other opioid overdose. This legislation, which was signed into law in July, will save countless lives every year. While this is a big step in the right direction, there is much more work to be done. I look forward to working with the NYS Department of Health, NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, advocacy organizations such as VOCAL-NY, and members of the community to establish more effective drug abuse policies for our state.”
Senator Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx) noted that geographic gaps in services are an important challenge in many parts of the state. “While the drug overdose crisis we are facing is serious and has reached shocking levels, we as a state have been moving in the right direction by enacting public health measures that appropriately address this issue. We have been able to move away from failed policies that criminalize an individual’s behavior, which only leads to greater incarceration and less individuals getting the treatment and health services they need. We must continue to expand overdose prevention services, harm reduction services, and drug treatment to the areas in our state that need them the most.”
“This is troubling data,” said Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard N. Gottfried. “This year we passed legislation to get naloxone into the hands of more people who need it. It’s safe, easy to administer, and effective. Improved access to life-saving treatment like this can reduce the harm this study revealed.”
“In addition to improving treatment options for individuals living with an addiction and enhancing public awareness to help families and friends recognize the warning signs of addiction, the legislation signed by Governor Cuomo in June also allows OASAS to provide community members with naloxone, an overdose antidote,” said Commissioner Arlene González-Sánchez, of the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services. “We look forward to continuing to work with VOCAL-NY and all advocates to inform and help overcome the destruction this dangerous epidemic is causing in people’s lives.”
VOCAL New York, which organized the rally, released a state policy platform, How to End the Drug Overdose Epidemic in New York. The platform makes recommendations for broader access to naloxone and syringe exchange programs, improvements in drug treatment and public health surveillance, criminal justice reform, and new strategies including attention to cocaine-involved deaths and allowing supervised injection facilities in New York.
On the latter issue, Taeko Frost, Executive Director of the Washington Heights CORNER Project noted that “homelessness is a major risk factor for fatal overdose. We serve people every day who are isolated and don’t have a safe, clean place to inject. The city should seriously consider strategies like supervised injection facilities, which have been an incredibly effective tool for reducing deaths and getting people into care in the nearly 100 locations where they have been established worldwide.”
Terrell Jones, a member of VOCAL New York and staff of NY Harm Reduction Educators in the Bronx, said that syringe exchange programs reach those most at risk of overdose, but have been chronically underfunded: “The city and state should double funding for harm reduction. If we don’t fully support syringe exchange and all the other services that harm reduction organizations provide, we won’t end the overdose epidemic.”
Council Member Stephen Levin (D-Brooklyn), Chair of the General Welfare Committee urged action by all parts of government: “Effectively combating drug overdoses is going to require a new way of thinking about the problem. By providing health-based solutions and raising awareness about overdose, we can save lives here in New York.
Summarizing the event, gabriel sayegh, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance said that “while New York has taken important steps to reduce accidental overdose deaths, the overdose crisis continues. Fortunately, we can end this crisis with evidence-based solutions that can save lives. Let’s start by making high-quality drug treatment available to everyone, ending the criminalization of people who use drugs, and looking to interventions that have worked in other jurisdictions, like supervised injection facilities. These smart solutions will save lives and build a healthier, safer New York.”