The Adams administration’s decision to expand safe injection sites in New York City by 2025 is aimed at reducing the high number of drug overdose deaths, which claimed over 2,000 lives last year.
However, before expanding the number of sites beyond the two in East Harlem and Washington Heights, the city must ensure that they actually work. While the City Health Commissioner assumes that these sites will reduce overdose deaths, the city has no way to know if the current sites run by the nonprofit OnPoint are effective in achieving this goal.
The group’s own data show that they have intervened in 750 overdoses, but the city needs to understand the overall impact of these sites on street addicts who use them.
Given that safe injection sites are illegal under federal law, they must be considered a pilot program and subjected to scrutiny like any other treatment regimen.
An evidence-based approach to assessing these sites should involve tracking every individual who enters and exits the site, as well as their criminal activity, drug use, and overall health outcomes. To do this, it may be reasonable to ask clients to wear ankle bracelets or other identification and to track them through their cellphones.
While some civil libertarians may argue that this approach is an invasion of privacy, it is important to remember that each of OnPoint’s clients is engaging in at least one illegal activity: purchasing an unlawful substance. By agreeing to overlook this, the Health Department and the NYPD must make a deal with addicts: We will help you, but you must let us learn from your experience.
A key data point to consider is whether overall overdose deaths actually decline by the targeted 15%. It is possible that normalizing drug use may encourage more addiction, potentially raising the overall number of overdoses.
This is even more crucial in light of neighborhood concerns about the effects of existing safe injection sites, such as illegal overflow activity and discarded needles.
The Health Department has identified the South Bronx as a future safe injection site, which makes sense since new sites must open where the addicts are found. However, magnets for drug use will not improve the quality of life in neighborhoods already plagued by violent crime and poor schools. Therefore, it is important to follow the addicts and study the evidence before expanding the number of sites in New York City.