There is no doubt the Adams administration’s decision to open five more “safe injection sites” by 2025 is motivated by a sincere effort to reduce the wave of drug overdoses that claimed the lives of more than 2,000 New Yorkers last year.
But before City Hall expands well beyond the two sites in East Harlem and Washington Heights, let’s take make sure of something — that they actually work.
City Health Commissioner Ashwin Vasan assumes they do.
“The goal is to reduce overdose deaths by 15% by 2025,” he says. “We must have more overdose-prevention centers in order to reach that goal.”
But as modest as that goal is, the city has no way to know if the sites operated by the nonprofit OnPoint actually help attain it.
The group’s own data show that it has, per executive director Sam Rivera, “intervened in 750 overdoses.”
But that is little more than a snapshot; the city desperately needs the big picture of what happens to the street addicts who enter the sites once they leave.
“Safe injection sites” — which, by the way, are illegal under federal law to which the Biden administration is turning a blind eye — must be considered a pilot program, a new and untested idea that, like any treatment regimen, must be scrutinized.
A serious, evidence-based approach to doing so must involve tracking every individual who walks through OnPoint’s doors and out again.
How many continue to buy and use illegal drugs? How many overdose and die outside the “safe sites”?
How many are arrested for criminal acts in which they engage to get the funds to buy street drugs? How many sell drugs to finance their habit?
Who supplies their illegal drugs? How many are later found sleeping on subways — and must be shooed into shelters by transit cops?
Any serious study — perhaps funded by the National Institute of Mental Health in conjunction with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration — should ask these question and more.
To do so, it may be reasonable to ask OnPoint clients to wear ankle bracelets or other identification so they can be tracked. Those who have cellphones — and many likely do — should be tracked through those.
OnPoint and the city Health Department should work with the NYPD to gather data on safe-site addicts’ criminal activity.
Civil libertarians may protest that such study would be an invasion of privacy. But keep in mind that each of OnPoint’s clients is engaging in at least one illegal activity — purchase of an unlawful substance.
By agreeing to overlook that, Health 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: Do overall overdose deaths actually decline by that 15%?
The city must not rule out the possibility that normalizing drug use encourages more addiction — potentially raising the overall number of ODs.
All of the above becomes even more crucial in light of the emergence of neighborhood concern about the effects of the existing OnPoint sites. As Morgan McKay reported for Fox 5 News, neighbors are being asked to tolerate a use they consider noxious.
One East Harlem resident identified only as Yvette told McKay of illegal overflow activity outside OnPoint. “I see them dealing right in front of my face, like I’m walking by, you see the dealer, passing the goods, they’re giving them the money. These needles are being left in the street in my neighborhood, they’re all over.” She worries about letting her grandson visit her and seeing all that.
The Health Department has already identified the South Bronx as a future safe injection site; one can be sure there won’t be one in Gramercy Park. That makes sense: New sites, to follow the city’s logic, must open where the addicts are found.
But magnets for drug use will not improve the quality of life in neighborhoods already plagued by violent crime and lousy schools.
Of course, it’s not impossible safe injection sites will be a net positive. But that must not be taken as an article of faith.
Follow the addicts and study the evidence — before this questionable experiment continues and expands.
Howard Husock is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.