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Will Safe-Injection Sites Prevent Many Overdose Deaths?

More than 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in a recent 12-month period, an all-time high in a crisis exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. People who use the privately funded supervised injection sites in New York City operated by the nonprofit OnPoint NYC, say they otherwise would have used those drugs by themselves at a park, public restroom, subway station or at home. Since the authorized service began operating Nov. 30, organizers say workers have reversed 76 overdoses, reports the Washington Post. Sam Rivera, the nonprofit’s head, is reminded of taking clean needles to what were called “shooting galleries” in the 1990s. At that time, clean-needle programs were stigmatized, recalled the now 59-year-old New Jersey resident. Now they are endorsed by the federal government as safe. “I saw an entire society change, an entire city change, when folks were given the opportunity to use clean syringes,” Rivera said.

For decades, Rivera has carried the overdose antidote naloxone with him, running from his office or jumping out of his car with a vial when he heard of an overdose, finding people at a point when oxygen was no longer reaching their brain, a critical stage. At the prevention centers, the overdose is reversed so quickly that many people are still conscious. The sites have called 911 for medical help once since their opening. The city estimates overdoses cost the health-care system $50 million annually for emergency medical service calls, emergency department visits and hospitalizations. Those who oppose supervised injection facilities say they may actually lessen the incentive for participants to enter treatment. David Murray of the conservative Hudson Institute argues that the resources would be better used for treatment programs. “The goal to reduce overdose deaths is very laudable, but they seem to have problems demonstrating that that’s actually the outcome,” he said. Keith Humphreys, an addiction researcher at Stanford University School of Medicine, questions the scalability of intervening when someone overdoses, when nearly one in five Americans used illicit drugs in 2018, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. “Will it be a game-changer?” Humphreys said. “Hell, no. It’s a pretty marginal effort.”


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