Nixon Outflanks Guv on Safer Consumption Spaces

Protesters heckled Governor Andrew Cuomo as he accepted the State Democratic Convention’s endorsement for reelection last month. | Mikola de Roo for Housing Works

BY NATHAN RILEY | While Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio dance around harm reduction measures to reduce the record-high number of overdose deaths, Cynthia Nixon is embracing Safer Consumption Spaces at events in the city and upstate.

Cuomo’s Democratic primary challenger unequivocally supports allowing users to inject in health care facilities where overdose prevention workers can step in to reverse overdoses, while the governor and mayor approach the issue like it’s a political third rail.

De Blasio gave the program a yellow light, including for one in Hell’s Kitchen; he’s for it but he wants the cover of the state health commissioner concurring. The delay there has been laid at the feet of Cuomo, who faced interruptions during his speech at the recent State Democratic Convention by activists chanting, “End overdose deaths now!”

The following day,  State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker sent a letter to a de Blasio aide asking for more information, especially related to concerns about neighborhood objections, before he would green-light the programs in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx — as well as upstate Ithaca, the first locality statewide to authorize such Safer Consumption Spaces.

In the meanwhile, the number of deaths keeps rising, with the latest figures for New York City reaching a new high of 1,441 in 2017, 80 percent of them from opioids. More people are dying of overdoses than from homicides, suicides, and vehicular accidents combined. This number averages out to an overdose death every seven hours in the five boroughs, a figure that explains the activists’ sense of urgency.

The governor’s hesitation was challenged on June 3 during a campaign appearance Nixon made in Ithaca. Asked about the issue by a local doctor who operates a harm reduction clinic for drug users, Nixon gave Safer Consumption Spaces her enthusiastic endorsement.“If we can show it’s successful here,” the Ithaca Journal reported her saying, “it will explode across the country and save thousands of lives.”

The close working relationship between Cuomo and Charles King, the CEO of Housing Works, an AIDS services organization that has pushed the Safer Consumption Space issue hard, has become strained over the governor’s failure to approve the idea.

“I’ve always praised the governor when he did the right thing, but I don’t have any reservations about calling him out when he falls short,” King said in a telephone interview. He added that a conversation with Zucker convinced him the health commissioner is on board.

Indeed, in his May 25 response to a de Blasio aide, Zucker wrote there is “emerging evidence that SIFs” — Safer Injection Facilities, another name for Safer Consumption Spaces — have many public health benefits that would “reduce overdose fatalities, lessen public nuisance, and curtail the transmission of bloodborne infections.” In addition, these programs “help bridge marginalized and vulnerable individuals” into treatment, care, and support.

Though he termed Zucker’s queries to the de Blasio administration a bit disingenuous because the state health department knows the answers to the questions,” King added, “It’s an effort by him to buy time knowing he [Cuomo] is right in the middle of a primary election.”

Safer Consumption Spaces are touted as effective in preventing infections, including hepatitis C and HIV, but most dramatically in curbing overdose deaths. These facilities are widely used in Canada, Europe, and Australia to permit drug users to consume drugs under the watchful eye of overdose prevention workers. Should a user go into a deep nod and lose consciousness, staff can provide oxygen or naloxone, a drug that is inhaled and quickly revives a user and restores normal breathing.

Since the first such facilities were opened in Switzerland in 1986, these facilities have handled thousands of overdoses, with not a single death reported in over 100 sites worldwide.

It’s too soon to know the impact of Nixon’s advocacy, but few obstacles to moving forward were evident in Zucker’s questions, which included the ultimate softball: “What kind of care is provided after use?” This is the biggest selling point for the approach. The user stays in the center, where help is just steps away.

“If you don’t like people nodding out on a street corner,” King said, “let’s give them space to do it indoors safely.”

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