Naloxone units at the Town of Babylon.

Naloxone units at the Town of Babylon. Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

We are only now coming to terms with the tragedy of drug overdoses that occurred as the nation shut down from COVID-19, and that still continue.

Overdose deaths hit record highs in New York in 2020, according to a state Department of Health report released this month. And 2021 saw hundreds of fatal overdoses in Nassau and Suffolk counties, with many more suspected but not yet confirmed by authorities. Fentanyl contamination makes dangerous opioids even more deadly.

Law enforcement, education, and more are needed to meet this crisis. Nassau and Suffolk received big checks from the settlements of lawsuits against drug manufacturers. With so many people dying, we should explore the use of every tool.

That’s the wisdom in the Safer Consumption Services Act, proposed state legislation that would provide a framework to help the state or local health jurisdictions approve the use of places where people can consume opioids or other drugs more safely. While the bill is unlikely to be approved in the waning days of the current session in Albany, the region should start discussing whether such sites would make a difference. There is always concern about what message this approach sends to users and those who may become users.

These facilities, also known as safe injection sites, can save lives. Users of potent, dangerous drugs like heroin bring their substances to the location, where staff members can provide sterile injection supplies and administer naloxone, or Narcan, to reverse an overdose.

Sites like these have existed for years in Europe and Canada, and two spots opened in Manhattan last year with promising results. Emerging research shows the value of this harm reduction tool, but most promising is the lack of deaths reported at sanctioned sites — as opposed to the grievous loss of life when users overdose alone. There is already a mobile syringe exchange program on Long Island operated by a nonprofit. 

The bill under consideration does not establish sites anywhere. Instead, it would authorize the state to begin determining minimum standards for potential sites: how to ensure confidentiality, address health care needs, and provide a bridge to treatment, not just injection.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s office says the bill is under review, and his Nassau counterpart Bruce Blakeman told the editorial board he would not support a site in the county. There are also practical challenges for injection sites here, such as transportation. There is little public transit; drug users are injecting many times a day and shouldn’t drive. Current providers of drug treatment could bring some of the benefits or protections of an injection site to those who need them — including expanding the distribution of naloxone and of fentanyl test strips, which can detect the deadly substance before someone consumes a drug.

While the idea may be jarring at first, let's look at every tool that can help save lives from this scourge.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.