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NYC Becomes 1st U.S. City To Open Authorized Overdose Prevention Centers

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) --  Two overdose prevention sites are up and running in Manhattan, allowing users to inject drugs under medical supervision. They are the first in the nation to officially open.

Three weeks ago, we reported the city was still weighing community buy-in and the federal legality of overdose prevention sites, but the ultimate decision came down to saving lives.

Sam Rivera is the executive director of the newly formed OnPoint NYC, a combination of two established service providers in Washington Heights and East Harlem.

"People talk about 'people should recover, people should stop using drugs,'" Rivera said. "If they don't live, then they don't get the opportunity."

When the doors opened, dozens of users showed up to use the new booths at each location. Three people almost overdosed the first day, but were saved at the facility.

"They were resolved within 30 seconds of on-set," said program director Kalin See. "That's never happened before."

One user named China said her friend died from an overdose a few weeks ago. Not only does she now feel protected by this new site, China says it will also help protect neighborhood kids by providing a private place to inject, and eventually smoke, drugs.

"Some kids walk past and be like, oh Mommy look, they're smoking crack. Mom, what's that?" China said. "And they stop and stare, and it's not cute."

"I wish this was around," Rivera added. "I grew up in the Lower East Side and I remember in the '70s, walking through Avenue B, Avenue C and different areas, walking past dead people in the street. No one can deny that."

Neighbors have voiced concerns about encouraging drug use, but Rivera argues that his program is the answer to the community's growing problem.

"Your request was to remove syringes from the street," he said, "to not have your children walking around and watch people using drugs in front of them, to keep parks safe and clean. All these things that the community asked for, we responded."

The city is already facing legal challenges. In a letter to Merrick Garland Tuesday, Congresswoman Nicole Malliotakis objects citing that this past January, "The Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that 'it is a federal crime to open a supervised injection site or "consumption room" for illegal drug use.'"

The city's overdose prevention site champion, Dr. Chinazo Cunningham with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, points out that more people died from overdoses in 2020 than in any year in history.

"It's unclear what's going to happen at the federal government," Cunningham said. "What I do know is that we are in the deadliest epidemic ever in terms of drug overdoses and we don't have time to wait."

While the federal government decides whether to take on the case, the two OnPoint NYC sites are open for business right now. The Washington Heights facility is located at 500 W. 180th St., and the East Harlem facility is located at 106 E. 126th St. Their hours of operation are Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends. Rivera's goal is to expand the hours of operation to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by spring 2022.

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