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New York City opens nation's first supervised injection site to help curb overdose deaths

New York City opened two "Overdose Prevention Centers" on Tuesday, the first supervised injection sites in the nation. The centers, according to the mayor's office, aim to curb the high rate of opioid deaths that has plagued the city for years. 

The centers are located with existing syringe service providers, and are "safe places" where people who use drugs have access to medical care, treatment and social services, Mayor Bill de Blasio's office said in a statement. Trained staff will work at the sites, which are located in Manhattan's East Harlem and Washington Heights, according to the New York Times

The opioid epidemic has been a crisis in the U.S. for years. During the pandemic in 2020, an estimated 100,000 people across the U.S. died of a drug overdose, the most ever recorded in a single year in the country. Experts say that drug overdose deaths in the U.S. now surpass deaths from car accidents, guns, the flu and pneumonia.

In New York City, overdose deaths increased from 1,497 in 2019 to 2,062 in 2020, according to the city's health data, with more than 85% involving opioids — the highest since the city began tracking opioid deaths in 2000, officials said. Provisional data shows this year's toll is similarly grim, with someone dying from an overdose every four hours in New York City.

From January to March this year, there were a confirmed 596 overdose deaths, most of which occurred in the Bronx and Brooklyn, respectively. 

Opioid overdoses cost the New York City health care system an estimated $50 million every year for medical service calls, emergency room visits and hospitalizations, a city study found, and just one facility in a heavily affected neighborhood could save the city $1 million every year. The study also found that if supervised injection sites were placed in four of the city's neighborhoods with the highest rates of overdose deaths, it could save up to 130 people from dying every year. 

Supervised injection sites have been proposed in various other U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco. Efforts to open a center in Philadelphia have been stymied by a legal challenge after the U.S. attorney sued, saying the facility would violate federal drug laws. The lawsuit is still pending in front of a federal appeals court after the Supreme Court declined to review the case. Safehouse, the nonprofit behind the effort, notes neighbors of the center "rejected the idea of supervised consumption."

In its announcement, the New York City mayor's office pointed to research by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction that found supervised drug consumption facilities, which have been used across Europe for decades, have "an overall positive impact" on communities where they are located and "may contribute to reducing drug-related deaths at city level." The group also found that many people who went to such facilities reported they engaged less in injecting-risk behavior, such as sharing syringes, and that the facilities are associated with increased use of detox and drug dependence treatment. 

New York's facilities will be supervised by two local organizations that have spent years advocating for better addiction support and services, New York Harm Reduction Educators and the Washington Heights Corner Project, which are merging to form OnPoint NYC, according to the New York Times, and will get funding from the city.

"Being the 1st OPC site in the US is an honor & incredible step forward in ending the overdose crisis," New York Harm Reduction Educators tweeted Tuesday. 

According to the Boston College Law Review, a provision of the federal Controlled Substances Act could allow states and local governments to run their own supervised injection sites. 

Rhode Island, which is moving forward with plans to create such sites after Governor Daniel McKee signed legislation allowing the facilities in July. The state's centers will be part of a two-year pilot program, according to The Providence Journal. California is also considering similar legislation.

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