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Since last spring, more than 100,000 Americans have died of drug overdoses — many caused by the opioid, fentanyl. Officials are searching for solutions to try to save lives, including setting up authorized centers where people can use illegal drugs under supervision. William Brangham and his team were granted rare access to two brand new sites in New York City — the first of their kind in America.
Since last spring, more than 100,000 Americans have died of drug overdoses, many caused by the extremely potent opioid fentanyl.
To try to save lives, officials are searching for solutions. The most recent are authorized centers where people can use illegal drugs under supervision.
Just before William Brangham traveled to cover the tornadoes in Kentucky, he and his team were granted rare access into the two new sites in New York City, the first of their kind in the U.S.
And a warning:
There are scenes of illicit drug use in this report.
Inside this Harlem building is the latest and most controversial strategy yet to save people from overdosing.
Kailin See, Senior Director, OnPoint NYC:
So, welcome to the overdose prevention site at NYHRE.
They're called safe consumption sites, where anyone can use their own illegal drugs under the watchful eye of medically trained staff, who'll step in if something goes wrong.
Everything you need is here for free, including ways to test drugs for fentanyl.
This is all the clean equipment people can use when they visit us.
Kailin See helps runs this site and a second one a few miles away.
Methamphetamine pipes. These are for crack inhalation, mouthpieces.
This man let us film him as he prepared a shot of heroin. He said he's been using since he was 16, but just started injecting a few years ago.
When you first heard that this was going to open up, this facility, what did it — what was your reaction?
I didn't think it was going to open up, because it sounded too good to be true.
You got to understand that the majority of us don't really want to be here. I can only tell you about me. You know, I'm here because I really needed their help, and they gave me the help I needed.
You have no chance to live the life you want for yourself if you don't survive an overdose.
And I would say that everybody that uses this site is somebody's child or mother or husband or wife, and every single one of those people has a right to live. And if we don't create spaces like this, if we don't acknowledge that people are using drugs in the United States and create safe spaces, then we will continue to lose people we love.
Sam Rivera, Executive Director, OnPoint NYC:
We want people to be able to use locally. We want people to feel safe and welcome, where they want to feel safe and welcome.
Sam Rivera is the executive director of OnPoint NYC, the nonprofit that runs these sites. He says these places meet drug users' immediate needs, but can then help them onto a different path, like drug treatment, when they're ready.
We're keeping people alive so that when — I say when — when they have the opportunity or believe they're in a place to reduce their drug use, or really see themselves for who they are inside, they can be here to do that.
While these two are the first such sites in America, there are an estimated 120 others like them in Canada, Europe and Australia.
So, do they work as intended?
Keith Humphreys, Stanford University:
We do know that, if someone has an overdose in the site, there are people there to save them, and that is unquestionably a good thing. And many people have had overdoses reversed.
There's not a lot of evidence, though, that they reach many people or that they change a community's overdose rate very much.
Keith Humphreys studies drug policy at Stanford University and was a senior drug policy adviser in the Obama administration. He says more research is needed into how often these sites guide people into drug treatment.
That is stated a lot, although it hasn't really been demonstrated very much, that people, in fact, are more likely to go to treatment when one of these sites opens. So I'm skeptical that that would increase the likelihood of entering treatment.
Alsane Mezon is one of the staffers here who watches over people as they use.
What do you say to people who look at this and they think, you're not helping get those people into treatment, really; you're just making it easier for them to, in essence, kill themselves?
Alsane Mezon, Harm Reduction Specialist, OnPoint NYC:
It's easy to judge when it's easy to put down a person that's trying to do something that you don't understand. But you can't ask someone who's on the front lines trying to save lives, stop saving lives.
You don't say that to a fireman who goes in and saves someone in a crack house. You won't say that to them. You don't question it. You just do it.
New York's mayor and city health department approved these sites, and say they are privately funded. The NYPD told us they have no plans to target anyone connected to them.
But just like the wave of marijuana legalization going on in the states, these two sites in New York might be authorized locally, but are likely illegal under federal law.
The Controlled Substances Act contains a provision that makes it illegal to rent, own or operate any facility for the specific purpose of using illegal drugs. And, in 2019, when Philadelphia tried to open a similar site, the Department of Justice, under President Trump, sued to stop it, and that facility never opened.
While the Biden administration supports proven interventions like needle exchanges and methadone treatment, it hasn't said anything about these supervised injection sites. The Department of Justice wouldn't give us any comment on its current position.
Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY):
It's actually a heroin shooting gallery, and that's really what it is. It is a community center for heroin addicts to go and shoot up under supervision, which I think is crazy.
Republican Congresswoman Nicole Malliotakis represents nearby Staten Island, New York. She sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking the DOJ to close these — quote — "unlawful sites."
Rep. Nicole Malliotakis:
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.
Drug dealers are going to know where to go to get clients. I think it's a very dangerous, slippery slope. And I feel that what you're doing is, you're enabling somebody's habit.
Another concern that's raised is where these sites are located. A group of longtime Harlem residents complain that New York City over many years has put too many drug treatment sites in one small area and they're a magnet for crime and disorder.
Syderia Asberry-Chresfield, Greater Harlem Coalition:
They have been just dumping these types of facilities in Black and brown areas because they get less political support.
Syderia Asberry-Chresfield has lived in Harlem for 30 years, raised her family here, and helped organize local protests.
It's systemic racism. This has been going on for decades. It's medical redlining. And I'm not blaming the patients, because that's a mental illness. I totally understand and I get it.
But it's still something that the community shouldn't have to experience on a daily basis.
For the people running the two centers in New York City, they're trying to keep the political fights at bay, and stay focused on the work at hand.
And, in the end, what do you want for all the people who come here?
I want them to find peace, find help, which has happened. So when I see that, I know I'm in the right place and doing the right thing for the right people.
In the nearly two weeks these sites have been open, the nonprofit running them says 330 people have used them, and 36 people have been resuscitated from overdoses.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham in New York City.
Watch the Full Episode
William Brangham is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C. He joined the flagship PBS program in 2015, after spending two years with PBS NewsHour Weekend in New York City.
Mike Fritz is a video journalist and producer for the PBS NewsHour.
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