New York City has announced the opening of the nation’s first sanctioned “Overdose Prevention Centers” (OPC) or “supervised injection sites." These are facilities where people can use drugs under the supervision of health care workers.

The sites are located in East Harlem and Washington Heights, and are operated and paid for by two separate nonprofit organizations that also operate needle exchange programs in the same neighborhoods.

Longtime OPC advocate, state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, also the chair of the Senate Health Committee, is celebrating the opening of the sites. He told Capital Tonight that society needs to realize that addiction is not a moral failing.

“Drug use is something that is happening in our communities,” Rivera said. “We have overdoses that are leading to death all across the country. If you are dead, you cannot recover.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 100,000 people have died from drug overdoses during the first year of the COVID pandemic. With such alarming numbers, advocates are turning to harm reduction efforts, including safe injection sites to staunch the rising tide of deaths. 

According to the New York City Department of Health, overdose prevention centers in New York City would save up to 130 lives a year.

But there is a major statutory hurdle that needs to be overcome, something the city of Philadelphia found out firsthand. 

The nonprofit Safehouse had long planned to open the first safe injection sites in the nation in Philadelphia. But the organization was sued. After an initial victory at the trial level, an appellate court found that the sites violated Section 856 of the U.S. Controlled Substances Act, known as the “crack house statute”:

“This ‘crack house statute’ from 1986 was written at the height of the country's crack epidemic as a way to strengthen prosecution of drug crimes. The law prohibits anyone from maintaining a place for the purpose of using, selling or storing drugs. The statute was later used to prosecute people hosting raves where ecstasy and other popular party drugs were consumed.” 

While Rivera believes that New York City may also see a legal challenge, he feels that the OPCs are on strong legal footing. 

“There are legal documents, legal memos and legal analysis that tell us both localities and states have the authority to do this,” Rivera said. “In this case, I am unaware of the conversations that the city has had with the state about (OPCs), but I know that we have said forever…that executives, like the mayor of the City of New York, could authorize them.”

Indeed, Mayor Bill de Blasio has been a vocal advocate. Additionally, NYPD and most of the city’s district attorneys have agreed not prosecute any of the people who may use the facilities.

The step New York City has taken may embolden some other cities across the country including San Francisco, Denver and Seattle.