By Ariama C. Long
Councilmember Chi Ossé introduced the Nightlife Opioid Antagonist Program in an effort to combat the opioid and overdose crisis in New York City last week. It requires establishments like bars and clubs to stock up on life-saving opioid antagonists. The bill was inspired by the loss of a friend to an overdose.
A New York State Department of Health 2021 report stated that opioid deaths have steadily increased from 2010. Data concluded that opioid overdoses increased significantly in 2020. The “crude rate” was highest among males, white non-Hispanic individuals, and 25- to 44-year-olds. The city’s health department data further breaks it down by saying that in New York City “every four hours someone dies of a drug overdose.” The city data indicates that more city residents “die of drug overdoses than homicides, suicides, and motor vehicle crashes combined.”
The Bronx and Harlem neighborhoods have reportedly the highest rates of overdose deaths.
“This is an overdue measure that will, simply, save lives,” said Ossé in a statement. “Each overdose death is a preventable tragedy; we do not accept them here in New York City. I am proud to partner with Councilmember Powers in this necessary bill and thrilled to see it become law. New York City became safer today.”
In the city council hearing on Sept 14, Ossé spoke about losing a “dear friend” to a fentanyl overdose last year. He also noted that this is not only his first bill passed but it would make him the youngest lead sponsor to pass a bill in the history of the city council. It will go into effect next January in 2023.
The bill, Intro 56-A, mandates the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) help prevent opioid overdoses in nightlife businesses. Opioids are defined by the state health department as prescription opioid pain relievers. This includes hydrocodone, oxycodone, fentanyl and morphine as well as illegal opioids like heroin, fentanyl, and opium.
The businesses will keep opioid antagonists, Narcan (Naloxone medication), on site and free of charge for patrons in the event of an overdose emergency. This bill would also require DOHMH to offer free training to staff on how to administer the nasal spray or injection. Naloxone is usually administered by EMS or medical staff. In 2020 alone, EMS agencies had 8,485 “unique administrations” of naloxone, said the state report. Administrations in 2020 were also reported as being higher on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, highlighting the need for opioid antagonists to be available over weekends, said the state report.
The city and state’s main approach to battling the opioid epidemic is through policies centered around “harm reduction” or the implementation of public health programming to prevent death from opioid overdoses. Biz Berthy, formerly the Drug Users Union Organizer at VOCAL-NY, said that harm reduction at least makes drug use more safe and intervenes with overdoses.
“A common definition of harm reduction is just meeting people where they’re at,” said Berthy. “It’s a philosophy of public health and politics. I would say in New York City it started in the early ’90s through the efforts of ACT UP to establish the first needle exchange to address the spread of HIV/AIDs drug users.”
Berthy said that the scale of the overdose crisis is so massive, however, that adding opioid antagonists to businesses won’t necessarily reach the majority of the population that uses drugs.
She suggested that eventually citywide and statewide overdose prevention centers would be more effective in addressing the crisis under The Safer Consumption Services Act (SCS Act). Since opening in November 2021, the two overdose centers in East Harlem and Washington Heights operated by OnPoint NYC have intervened in hundreds of potential overdoses to avert injury or death. Berthy said the great thing about these centers is that they conduct extensive drug checks and will alert the community to “bad batches.”
Berthy noted that Mayor Eric Adams has expressed support for the overdose prevention centers, and the former DOHMH commissioner, Dr. David Choksi, recently published the first peer-reviewed data on the centers in the city.
“The opioid epidemic has already taken the lives of thousands of New Yorkers and the pandemic only exacerbated this crisis. Today, one of our city’s residents loses their life to an overdose every three hours, so it is essential we use every tool in our arsenal to tackle the overdose crisis,” said Adams on Aug. 6 in a statement.
“Countless families in our city have been torn apart by opioids but I’m proud that New York City is leading the way in overdose prevention and taking action to save lives—because a crisis does not wait, and neither can we. Overdose prevention centers keep neighborhoods and people struggling with substance use safe. Now is the time to expand access to OPCs and do so in an equitable way across New York City,” he stated.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w