Since February 2022, the two Overdose Prevention Centers [OPC] in East Harlem and Washington Heights have been visited 10,470 times by 857 individual participants, and have intervened in 180 overdoses, according to data provided by the nonprofit that runs the sites, OnPoint NYC, on March 9th, 2022.
Most importantly, all individuals who suffered an overdose within the OPCs survived due to the life-saving measures of the medical staff who oversee all of the participants within the center.
The city initially estimated that the two OPCs would save between 100 to 130 lives each year. However, after only operating for a few short months, the centers have already surpassed those numbers.
OnPoint has also said the effects of their OPCs are farther reaching than just saving lives. There has been an improvement in the quality of life for the surrounding communities. The OPC in Washington Heights has reported that the Sanitation Department is collecting far fewer discarded syringes.
The Sanitation Department used to collect around 13,000 discarded syringes a month, which is now down to an estimated 1,000 discarded syringes a month.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses between May 2020 and April 2021.
This means roughly 1,923 people died of drug overdoses every week.
Of the total deaths, about 75,000 were due to opioids and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl — most of which is trafficked into the U.S. through China — according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The problem is widespread across the United States, including in New York City, according to Dr. Dave Chokshi, commissioner of NYC’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene:
“In the year 2020, over 2,000 New Yorkers died of an overdose,” he told ABC News. “That means every four hours, a New Yorker died of an overdose and the total number is more than deaths due to homicides, suicides, and motor vehicle crashes combined.”
You may be wondering to yourself, “this all sounds fine and dandy, but what exactly is an Overdose Prevention Center, and why are they so controversial?” An OPC is a place where those suffering from a substance use disorder can safely inject their own drugs under the supervision of medical staff. OPCs protect those who are suffering from substance use disorders from harmful behaviors that could increase their risk of death, such as taking contaminated drugs or injecting with dirty or shared syringes.
This prevents the spread of diseases by reducing the spread of HIV and hepatitis C. Staff at the centers can administer naloxone, a medication to reverse overdoses, as well as provide the participants in the center with many other harm reduction resources such as: handing out fentanyl test strips; give information on rehabilitation centers; withdrawal support where participants are paired with counselors and coordinators to facilitate the transition; and primary care services, including immunizations, wound care, HIV and AIDs testing, pregnancy tests, and sick visits.
The first professionally staffed OPC emerged in the Netherlands during the early 1970s as part of the “alternative youth service” provided by the St. Paul’s church in Rotterdam. One of the centers in the Netherlands was also a pioneer in the needle-exchange program that is now done globally.
One study in 2003 done on the first OPC in North America, Insite Supervised Injection Site located in Vancouver, found that the fatal overdose rate in the area surrounding the site fell by 35% after it opened. Another study found that more than half of users at Insite entered into an addiction treatment program within two years.
Drawing on more than a decade of studies, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) in 2018 concluded that OPCs led to “safer use for clients” and “wider health and public order benefits.”
Among those benefits: Drops in drug-related deaths and emergency service calls related to overdoses; a reduction in both public disorder and public injecting while increasing public safety; successful management of on-site overdoses and reducing drug-related overdose death rates; and a reduction of costs due to a decrease in disease, overdose deaths, and need for emergency medical services. Because of these benefits, a recent study was conducted and estimated that placing an OPC in a U.S. city would result in a net savings of $3.5 million (U.S.) per year.
Despite concerns that the facilities would draw more people who use drugs to an area and cause disorder, according to the EMCDDA, these facilities benefit their local communities. The facilities weren’t linked to higher crime and, in fact, were linked to reduced street disorder and encounters with police.
It should also be noted, that overall in areas with OPCs, far fewer arrests for minor drug offenses occur. While it was recently reported that someone is arrested for marijuana possession in the U.S. every 42 seconds, Dutch citizens have generally been spared the burden of criminal records for minor, nonviolent offenses. According to one comparison, in 2005 there were 269 marijuana possession arrests for every 100,000 citizens in the United States, 206 in the United Kingdom, 225 in France, and just 19 in the Netherlands.
Lighter enforcement did not lead to more drug use. About 25.7 percent of Dutch citizens reported having used marijuana at least once, which is on par with the European average. In the comparatively strict United Kingdom, the rate is 30.2 percent and in the United States it is a whopping 41.9 percent.
There are currently 120 OPCs operating in ten countries around the world, and the Drug Policy Alliance says there has not been a single overdose fatality at any OPC.
Despite all of this data, there are some who are opposed to OPCs because of a lack of understanding or perhaps a lack of compassion for the recovery community, causing a lack of willingness to work with harm reduction advocates within the NYC community.
Representative Nicole Malliotakis said in an interview with PBS NewsHour that OPCs are nothing more than “a community center for heroin addicts to go and shoot up under supervision, which I think is crazy … I don’t see this ending in a good place. I think it’s just going to further deteriorate communities. It’s going to further attract the criminal element.”
As noted above and from countless other studies, OPCs are evidence-based solutions that save lives and make communities safer.
According to a January 2020 Edmonton Journal editorial, by 2020, Alberta had seven OPCs with a “100-per-cent success rate at reversing the more than 4,300 overdoses” that occurred from November 2017—when the first OPC opened in the province—until August 2019.
New York State Senator Gustavo Rivera, a supporter of OPCs in NYC, said in a statement that, “these centers are not only safe places where people who use drugs can receive medical care and be connected to treatment, but they also help address the valid concerns that certain New Yorkers have regarding the increased presence of substance use on our streets and its impact on our communities. … I look forward to working with Governor Hochul and my colleagues in the Legislature to authorize them throughout New York State and prevent unnecessary overdose deaths as we deal with putting an end to the opioid epidemic.”
Today is our nation’s first-ever National Fentanyl Awareness Day, a broad coalition of nonprofit organizations, major corporations, government agencies, and schools whose mission is to raise awareness about the presence of fentanyl in counterfeit pills. Illegally made fentanyl is the primary driver of the recent increase in overdose deaths, and fentanyl-involved deaths are the fastest growing among 14- to 23-year-olds.
National Fentanyl Awareness Day is supported by an Advisory Council comprised of experts in drug policy, public health, harm reduction, internet safety, and neuroscience. This breadth of expertise is indicative of the urgency that all stakeholders share about the need to alert the public about the unprecedented increase in drug-related deaths driven by fentanyl, and to initiate a national conversation about solutions.
This makes today, now more than ever, a fitting time to reflect on OPCs and their place in our city and our community. Far too many lives have been lost to the overdose and addiction crisis this country is facing. Action needs to be taken before any more lives are lost to overdoses, which are reversible with the use of naloxone and the integration of more OPCs.
Alexandra Nyman is an NYC resident
The writer is the editor-in-chief of Soberocity, a blog with a focus on the recovery community and raising awareness on substance use disorders. Nyman serves as the Founder of Break Free NYFW, a mental health and substance use disorder advocacy group bridging the gap between fashion as a medium of both art and advocacy.