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"Reduce the harm": Supervised drug sites open in the U.S. in effort to prevent overdoses

First overdose prevention center
Inside overdose prevention centers designed to reduce harm from illicit drug use 06:13

Overdose prevention centers are designed to help curb the nation's drug epidemic, which has taken more than 100,000 lives in the past year. It gives addicts space to use illegal drugs safely with trained staff standing by to help if they overdose.

The U.S. has two such centers, one of which is located in New York City's East Harlem neighborhood. Sam Rivera is the executive director of the OnPoint NYC facility — and a guardian angel to many struggling with addiction.

"When they use in the street, they're hiding in an alley alone. They're hiding in a bathroom alone. If they overdose, no one's there," he told CBS News. "If there's an overdose, we get to respond immediately. And those are key moments because those are moments where some people will say, 'this is it.'"

On average, more than 2,000 people in New York City die from drug overdoses each year. In just the first five months of operation, the two centers intervened 283 times without a single death.

Rivera knows all too well how illegal drugs turn lives upside down. When he was in his 20s, he spent five years behind bars on drug-related charges. In prison, he worked with H.I.V. positive inmates, saying that the experience changed his life and led him to help other marginalized people.

"The harm exists, right? The drug use exists. What we want to do is reduce the harm associated with the drug use," Rivera said.

Clean needles and other supplies reduce the risk of infection and mirrored booths allow staff to watch for drug reactions.

After staying clean for two years, Kristina Peterson started using heroin again during the pandemic. Since the start of the pandemic, death due to drug overdoses rose almost 30%.

"They're not going to push the actual drug into you," Peterson said, "But they're gonna guide you to do it safely."

Program director Kailin See said quicker response times reduce the need for invasive life-saving measures like nasal Naloxone.

"We're able to resolve 85% of the overdoses with just oxygen alone," she said. "For those 100,000+ overdoses America saw last year. If someone was there when it happened, those people wouldn't have died."

Taxpayer dollars cover wellness centers, medical care and connections to rehab — but since the drugs brought in are illegal, only private donations fund the drug supervision area.

"We believe that abstinence and harm reduction are partners in this fight against overdose, death and against the addiction epidemic," See responded when asked what she would tell those who say they're just allowing people to come in and use drugs. "You cannot recover. You cannot live your life. You cannot do the things you want for yourself if you don't survive an overdose."

Despite resistance from community groups, the program is allowed to operate without raids or arrests. New York City Mayor Eric Adams told CBS News he supports the centers.

The Department of Justice told CBS News it's "evaluating supervised consumption sites... as part of an overall approach to harm reduction and public safety."

Omar Torres, who has been using heroin and cocaine since he was 16 years old, said the staff at the facility give him something he usually doesn't receive — respect. He said he would go to the center daily but it's closed on the weekends.

"Because, it's safe in here. You know? On the weekends we don't got nowhere to go," he told CBS News. "So we got to be in the hallways or in the streets and people get mad at us, want to fight us, throw things at us, called us names, you know, and we're not animals. We actually good people, we just got an addiction."

Rivera wants the facility to serve as a blueprint for other harm reduction centers across the country.

"We're keeping humans alive so they get an opportunity. And I can introduce you to hundreds and thousands who, because of these programs, are still here and are productive members of society," he said.

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