Stayin’ alive: Overdose prevention centers are saving New Yorkers

·2 min read

A supposedly risky experiment is working wonders: With less than two months under their belt, New York City’s overdose prevention centers have already averted dozens of would-be tragedies.

As of the end of Thursday, the two safe-injection facilities operated by new nonprofit OnPoint NYC, both in Upper Manhattan, have together reversed 120 overdoses. Seen from one angle, it is alarming that there has been such a volume of overdoses, far outpacing initial estimates that the centers could save 130 lives per year. Seen from another, these are more than a hundred overdoses that would have likely happened anyway, except instead of ending in near misses, they would have been irreversible tragedies.

The lives saved are fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, coworkers and neighbors who now have the opportunity to be steered to supportive services, including medication-assisted treatment and other pathways to break free of their addiction.

We understand some of the initial apprehension about opening centers where people can safely use illicit drugs, but after a lifetime of failed policies that attempted to arrest our way out of a public health crisis, safe injection facilities are the very beginning of a new approach. Indeed, the initial jitters seem to be melting away as communities realize that in their absence, the drug use doesn’t go away; it happens in alleyways, parks and subway stations, leaving behind a trail of toxic debris and filling body bags.

Assuming the centers keep saving lives, the logical step is to think about strategic expansion. Opioid overdoses are an emergency and require a public policy response as aggressive as the one against COVID. Unfortunately, there are significant obstacles in the way.

Chief among them is the federal prohibition on providing space for illegal drug use; the Biden administration seems to be staying away from enforcement, but that possibility still looms. More crucially, it chokes off public investment, as local governments and policymakers find they cannot fund operations that are technically illegal. It’s time for Congress to do away with that outdated law altogether.