New York lawmakers approve bill authorizing safe drug consumption sites in committee

A New York Assembly committee on Tuesday introduced a bill to establish a statewide safe consumption sites program, allowing regulators to license facilities where people might use drugs currently illicit in a medically supervised environment.

Congresswoman Linda Rosenthal’s (D) legislation was flagged by the Assembly Health Committee, with a few Democrats joining the Republican minority in voting against it. The bill is now heading to the Codes Committee before potentially going to the prosecution for review.

Under the proposal, the New York Department of Health and local agencies would have the ability to license safe consumption sites and regulate facilities.

The intent of the legislation is to prevent overdose deaths by having medical professionals on site in locations where they can use pre-obtained controlled substances without facing the threat of arrest or incarceration. People would also receive treatment resources.

Additionally, the bill would require facilities to provide needle exchange services where people could obtain sterile hypodermic needles and also safely drop off used needles.

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Education would also be a key part of the law, with a mandate that approved safe consumption sites provide, “at a minimum”, information about the risks of contracting diseases such as HIV and viral hepatitis when sharing. of needles.

“This bill will reduce overdose deaths associated with opioid use and harm to the public caused by public intravenous drug use,” the measure’s rationale section says, citing experiences from other countries that currently authorize overdose prevention facilities.

Centers should also provide education and access to naloxone, an overdose reversal drug.

“Drug addiction is a disease and we need to have an open mind [about] how we reach out to those who are addicted and how we can help them not to die,” a member of the Assembly committee said during Tuesday’s hearing.

New York City has become the first city in the United States to allow government-approved overdose prevention sites to operate in their jurisdiction – and supporters have touted early results showing the facilities are already saving lives.

“We commend the members of the Assembly Health Committee for ensuring that this life-saving bill is one step closer to passing their House. Now we need our elected officials in the Senate to do likewise,” VOCAL-NY’s James Hill said in a press release.

“While overdose prevention centers may not be needed in every district of New York State, they are desperately needed in communities like mine in Buffalo,” he said. “With only 10 sitting days left on the calendar, we need our leaders to seize their power and find the political will to pass the Safer Consumer Services Act.”

Meanwhile, litigation is ongoing between the Justice Department and a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that sought to launch safe drinking sites to be challenged under the Trump administration.

A deadline for a response from the Biden administration was recently extended in federal court, which advocates say reflects “productive” conversations they’ve had around harm reduction policy.

The DOJ said in February that it was “actively evaluating supervised consumption sites, including discussions with state and local regulators about appropriate safeguards for these sites, as part of a comprehensive harm reduction approach.” and public safety”.

A poll released in April found that a majority of Americans (64%) support allowing safe drinking sites.

While the Biden administration has yet to take a specific position on policy proposals to allow safe drinking facilities, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched a pair of Requests for Nominations (RFAs) in December. for an effort that will provide funding for efforts to study how this and other harm reduction policies could help solve the drug crisis.

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) director Nora Volkow has repeatedly expressed concern about the harm caused by the criminalization of drug possession, and she told Marijuana Moment in an interview. last year that she was ready to continue exploring “how these support systems like a community can help people, for example, to engage in treatment, how they can prevent them from becoming infected with HIV and how they can prevent them from overdosing and dying.

Activists in several cities have tried to establish harm reduction centers in recent years, citing promising results from programs in other countries like Canada and Australia.

In October, the Supreme Court denied a request to hear a case on the legality of establishing the Safehouse facilities, but the case is still in lower federal court.

White House drug czar Rahul Gupta recently said it was essential to explore “all options” to reduce overdose deaths, and that could include allowing safe consumption sites for illegal substances if the evidence confirms their effectiveness.

The director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) previously said he couldn’t speak about harm reduction centers due to the ongoing Safehouse-related litigation, but he seemed more open to the possibility in a interview with CNN late last year.

US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Bacerra also recently signaled that the Biden administration would not move to block the establishment of safe injection sites, noting that “we are literally trying to give users a lifeline”.

But a department spokesperson later backtracked on the remarks, saying “HHS does not have a position on supervised consumption sites” and “the matter is a matter of ongoing litigation.” Either way, it would be up to the DOJ to decide whether to prosecute the operators of the facilities under the Controlled Substances Act.

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

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

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

Massachusetts lawmakers proposed similar legislation last year, but it ultimately did not pass into law.

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

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Photo courtesy of Jernej Furman.

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