Protesters Condemn Attempts by Republicans to Defund Overdose Prevention Centers

Following the introduction of legislation to defund harm reduction and overdose prevention centers, advocates held a protest in Manhattan this week. 

Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard, who organized the protest with VOCAL-NY. Credit: Niamh Rowe for NY City Lens (March 9 2022).

The nation’s first overdose prevention centers (OPCs) opened in Manhattan in late 2021, a year during which overdose deaths topped 100,000.  Now, advocates of these centers say OPCs are being threatened. 

Huddled under the snow outside of the Staten Island Ferry Terminal in Manhattan on Wednesday morning, protesters rallied together to oppose a bill introduced in Congress by Republican Congressmember Nicole Malliotakis of Staten Island and South Brooklyn that aims to defund the centers. 

Today, two OPCs are open in East Harlem and Washington Heights. The centers are the first of their kind in the nation and have prevented 180 overdoses in their first four months of operations.

“The real aim of Malliotakis’ legislation, it seems, is to deepen existing divisions between the Americans who believe drug users deserve to live, and the Americans who don’t care if we die,” said Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard, who organized the protest with VOCAL-NY, a grassroots organization focused on social justice issues.

The bill’s mere existence stands to “validate and embolden the idea that drug users should not have access to basic health services,” she said. 

“No More Drug War” and “End Overdose NY” slogans adorned their banners. The protest’s location was intended to reach as many of Malliotakis’ constituents as possible. 

Vocal-NY advocates protest Congress member Nicole Malliotakis’ bill. Credit: Niamh Rowe for NY City Lens (March 9 2022).

On December 8th, 2021, Malliotakis introduced the Defund de Blasio’s Injection Sites Act of 2021 bill, just a week after the centers were opened by nonprofit OnPoint NYC. The bill would “withhold federal funding from city, state, tribal, or private entities that operate supervised injection centers in violation of the Controlled Substances Act,” and currently has nine Republican co-sponsors. 

However, Blanchard pointed out that no federal funding currently reaches the centers, which are exclusively funded by private grants.

The timing of the protest is no accident, as Malliotakis’ bill is not the only threat to the OPCs. Last month US Senator Marco Rubio threatened the progress of a federal funding bill in an effort to put pressure on lawmakers to support legislation he crafted to prohibit federal funds from going toward making available drug paraphernalia.

Blanchard and other advocates are concerned that Rubio may do something similar this week, as the $1.5 trillion omnibus spending package is set to clear Congress by Friday. 

“We wanted to take the offensive and potentially prevent another showdown by moving to action two days prior,” she said. 

In December, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) announced its first-ever harm reduction program, which was funded through the American Rescue Plan. The funding could go toward, for example, “provision of sterile syringes, safe sex kits, prevention education about synthetic opioids and other substances, overdose prevention kits including naloxone distribution.” Rubio’s bill is one example of the Republican backlash that has followed.  

US Senator Marco Rubio has introduced a bill to defund harm reduction. Credit: Niamh Rowe for NY City Lens (March 9 2022).

At New York’s OPCs users can access clean syringes, straws for snorting, alcohol wipes, amongst other paraphernalia. But it’s the oxygen and the opioid-overdose-reversing drug naloxone that saves the most lives.

Sam Rivera, OnPoint NYC’s founder, said the centers have reached more than 10,000 visits.

“We’re reducing the cost for health care,” Rivera said. “Because when people overdose, they stay with us, they don’t go to hospital because we reverse it so early.”

Malliotakis feels differently. “Gifting money to heroin shooting galleries that only encourage drug use and deteriorate our quality of life is an egregious abuse of taxpayer dollars,” she said in a statement released in December 2021.

Supervised injection facilities are not a new idea. British Columbia (B.C.), the epicenter of Canada’s opioid crisis, opened its first such facility in 2003. 

Bruce Wallace, Associate Professor of Social Work at the University of Victoria, which is in B.C.,  studies these facilities. His research suggests the centers are “extremely effective for people who can access them,” he said, as there is yet to be an overdose in the centers studied.

Wallace disputes opponents’ logic. “Conservatives have often said that it’s going to encourage drug use as if somehow if you give syringes to people, they’re going to start to want to use drugs.” He said that that has not happened in B.C., but rather, “we have been able to significantly reduce HIV transmission.” He also notes that in the absence of supervised injection facilities, drug usage becomes more public in “playgrounds and alleyways.”