The de Blasio Administration today announced it has joined five other cities and counties across the country in filing an amicus brief supporting a nonprofit being sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for its attempt to open an overdose prevention site.
“We have a moral obligation to save lives and connect people to addiction treatment, and New York City is on the front lines of the opioid crisis,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. “It’s repugnant that the Trump Administration is once again trying to criminalize people with addiction issues and we’re proud to stand with other municipalities to say we’ll do everything in our power to save lives.”
“As people die and families are devastated by the long lasting consequences of the continuing opioid epidemic, cities must do everything they can to support communities and save lives,” said First Lady Chirlane McCray. “New York is taking every measure to address the root causes of substance abuse and ensure people have the resources they need to help themselves or someone they love. We will be vigilant and press on until the end of this public health crisis.”
The nonprofit, Safehouse, is planning to open and operate a site that provides overdose prevention services in Philadelphia. In February 2019, the DOJ filed a civil lawsuit asking the court to block the site and declare it a violation of the Federal Controlled Substances Act, the “crack house statute.” The brief is being submitted in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
In New York City, someone dies of a drug overdose every six hours. In 2017, there were 1,487 confirmed drug overdose deaths, and more people in New York City died from drug overdoses that year than from motor vehicle collisions, suicides, and homicides combined. Opioids were involved in 82 percent of New York City overdose deaths that year. For the first time, fentanyl, a powerful and fast-acting opioid, was the most common drug, involved in 57 percent of deaths. Overdose deaths remain at epidemic levels in New York City as illicitly manufactured fentanyl continues to be present in the drug supply.
The NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, as well as other health departments across the country, takes an evidence-based approach to confronting the crisis of opioid addiction and overdose, and research strongly indicates that overdose prevention sites prevent overdoses, improve access to addiction treatment, and save lives.
In May 2018, Mayor de Blasio announced his support to pilot four overdose prevention centers in New York City. The sites would be privately operated and funded, and would need to meet specific criteria prior to opening, including: Receiving authorization from the New York State Department of Health to pilot the overdose prevention centers as a research study; be sanctioned by the local District Attorney where a site is proposed; receive support from a local Council Member; and undergo a 6 to 12 month planning process with a local community advisory board, comprised of local stakeholders, including residents. The State Department of Health has not yet moved ahead with authorization.
The City has taken aggressive steps to reduce drug overdose deaths citywide and connect people to care and treatment. In 2017, it launched HealingNYC, a program that aims to fight the opioid epidemic by increasing resources, support and education in communities. HealingNYC has distributed more than 230,000 naloxone kits to opioid overdose prevention programs citywide, and has launched a peer-based program called Relay in 10 hospital system’s emergency departments across the city to provide support to people who experience an overdose. In addition, HealingNYC has trained more than 1,700 clinicians to prescribe buprenorphine, raised public awareness through three citywide media campaigns and launched StopODNYC, a free mobile app to teach New Yorkers how to recognize and reverse an overdose with naloxone and links them to locations where naloxone is available without a prescription.
“New York and other cities are on the frontlines of this deadly public health crisis,” said Corporation Counsel Zachary W. Carter. “Citing a federal law clearly intended to prohibit the operation of crack houses, DOJ seeks to prevent cities and counties from supporting health facilities designed to prevent dangerous drug overdoses. New York City will continue to use every legal tool at its disposal to protect this lifesaving initiative.”
“This administration is committed to disrupting the opioid epidemic and saving lives using every tool at our disposal,” said Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Dr. Herminia Palacio. “That is why last year we announced our support for Overdose Prevention Centers as an evidence-based, innovative model to reducing overdose deaths.”
“In New York City we won’t stand idly by as our fellow residents are dying of overdoses,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot. “We are doing everything in our power to provide life-saving overdose reversal kits, sterile syringes as well as judgement-free information that can link people with services. We can turn the tide on the overdose epidemic, but we need to employ every available tool. The science is clear: Overdose prevention centers save lives. They have a record of success in other jurisdictions and should be available in Philadelphia as well as New York City.”
The brief argues cities and counties should be permitted to support the opening of these sites in their communities. DOJ’s reliance on the federal Controlled Substances Act, or “crack house” statute, to prohibit localities from doing so is fundamentally incompatible with the statute and would raise troubling implications for the constitutional powers of state and local governments to protect public health.
Today’s amicus brief is the latest in New York City’s legal efforts to combat the opioid epidemic. In January 2018, the City filed a lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court to hold manufacturers and distributors of prescription opioids accountable for their roles in the deadly epidemic. Through the lawsuit, the City aims to recover upwards of half a billion dollars in past damages and future costs to address the opioids crisis. Earlier this year members of the Sackler families, who have controlled opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma for decades, and large retailers like CVS and Wal-Mart were added as defendants in the City’s lawsuit.
The amicus brief was drafted by Hogan Lovells. In addition to New York City, other jurisdictions joining the brief include San Francisco, California; King County, Washington; Seattle, Washington; Pittsburgh Pennsylvania; and Svante L. Myrick, Mayor of Ithaca, New York.
The amicus brief can be found here.