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New York City is officially the first jurisdiction in the United States to open safe consumption sites where people can use currently illegal drugs in a medically supervised environment and receive treatment resources.

It is a harm reduction service that advocates believe could play a vital role in reducing the overdose crisis. Other cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco have moved to allow safe consumption sites, but legal and political issues have prevented the facilities from opening.

The first two sites will start operating on Tuesday, located in existing facilities that provide needle exchange services, the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) said.

“New York City has led the nation’s battle against COVID-19, and the fight to keep our community safe does not end there. After a comprehensive study, we know the right path to take to protect our city’s most vulnerable people. And we will not hesitate to take it, ”de Blasio said in a statement.

“Overdose prevention centers are a safe and effective way to deal with the opioid crisis,” he said. “I am proud to show the cities of this country that after decades of failure, a smarter approach is possible.

It remains to be seen how the Federal Ministry of Justice will approach the new centers. Under the Trump administration in 2019, DOJ filed a lawsuit to prevent Safehouse, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, from opening a supervised injection site. In October, the Supreme Court rejected a request to hear a case on the legality of establishing the facilities.

Current US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Bacerra recently signaled that the Biden administration would not budge to block the facility’s secure injection sites, stressing that “we are trying literally to give users a lifeline.

But a spokesperson for the department later returned to the remarks, saying that “HHS does not have a position on supervised consumption sites” and that “the issue is the subject of ongoing litigation.” In any event, it would be up to the DOJ to decide whether to prosecute facility operators under the Controlled Substances Act.

Bacerra was among eight senior law enforcement officials in the state who filed an amicus brief in support of Safehouse’s safe injection site plan when he was California attorney general.

Defenders put the current situation in no uncertain terms. They say harm reduction centers could mean the difference between life and death for countless Americans who currently use illegal drugs.

In New York in particular, the health department conducted a feasibility study that found safe consumption sites could save up to 130 lives per year.

“The national overdose epidemic is a five-alarm fire in public health, and we must face this crisis along with our fight against COVID,” said Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi. “Giving people a safe and supportive space will save lives and bring people back from the streets, improving the lives of everyone involved. Overdose prevention centers are a key part of broader harm reduction.

The New York Harm Reduction Educators and Washington Heights Corner Project nonprofits will lead operations with plans to merge and expand under the OnPoint NYC name.

The Biden administration has generally promoted the concept of harm reduction as part of its drug policy, but it has not formally weighed in on safe consumption sites in particular.

Chokshi told The New York Times that he had had “productive conversations” with state and federal officials and that he believed New York City facilities would be allowed to operate on the basis of ‘a “shared sense of urgency” to curb the overdose crisis.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said “we’ve always tried to find the right balance between enforcement, rehabilitation and prevention.”

“I would rather the people who are going to shoot do it in a safe and secure place than in a McDonald’s bathroom, alleyway or subway stairs,” he said.

The legal complication of these harm reduction sites is primarily related to a so-called “federal crack house law” which criminalizes the use of a place for the manufacture, distribution or consumption of controlled substances. .

“We applaud Mayor de Blasio for showing leadership in the fight against fatal overdoses in New York by setting up overdose prevention center pilots in the midst of the worst year for overdose deaths in New York ”, Kassandra Frederique, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, mentioned.

“While other politicians have used the lack of clarity in the Justice Department’s position on overdose prevention centers as an excuse for inaction, the mayor has made it clear that saving lives is more important to New York “she said.

Michael Botticelli, the former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) under the Obama administration, told The Times that “many cities waited for someone to come first, especially to see what was the reaction of the Federal Ministry of Justice. to be.”

“It’s extremely important, not only from a public health perspective, but for other communities across the country who have considered this to be able to point to New York City and say we’re doing it in the United States. Said Botticelli, who was in a position to provide advice on these harm reduction issues during his tenure, said.

Current ONDCP director Rahul Gupta has been criticized by advocates for his harm reduction record. As commissioner of the West Virginia Department of Health and the Office of Human Resources for Public Health, he oversaw the decertification of a syringe access program designed to mitigate the spread of diseases like HIV and deliver resources for people with substance abuse disorders.

As the national debate on drug and substance abuse policy continues to evolve, support for harm reduction centers has expanded outside traditional advocacy circles.

A coalition of 80 current and former prosecutors and law enforcement officials, including one who is Biden’s choice for the US attorney for Massachusetts, also previously filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to take up the case of Safehouse safe consumption.

As New York City is the first to open harm reduction centers, the governor of Rhode Island signed a landmark bill in July to establish a safe consumption site pilot program.

Massachusetts lawmakers proposed similar legislation last year, but it was ultimately not enacted.

A similar harm reduction bill in California, sponsored by Senator Scott Wiener (D), was approved by the state Senate in April, but other measures have been delayed until 2022.

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