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Critics condemn New York prosecutor’s threat to close supervised drug sites | Ne

A warning by New York’s top federal prosecutor that the Department of Justice may seek to close two supervised drug consumption sites in upper Manhattan has been condemned by activists looking for solutions to America’s devastating opioid epidemic.

Damian Williams, the US attorney for the southern district of New York, said the centers, that allow people with substance abuse disorders to use illicit drugs, were illegal. In a statement to the New York Times, Williams said he considered the opioid epidemic a law enforcement and a public health crisis and that they are currently operating in violation of federal, state and local laws.

“That is unacceptable,” Williams added. “My office is prepared to exercise all options – including enforcement – if this situation does not change in short order.”

But the move drew a quick response from supporters who point out the two OnPoint NYC sites, in Harlem and Washington Heights, have reversed 1,000 overdoses in the city since they opened in 2021.

“I don’t understand why America doesn’t want to keep its people alive when it’s obvious this is what works,” said Nan Goldin, the famed photographer who became prominent in the battle to hold opioid manufacturers responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans.

“It’s crazy to me that we know what works and we can’t do it,” Goldin added. “The base problem is stigmatization, and yet the authorities still talking about the way to address the opioid crisis is to shut down safe injection sites and increase policing.”

The issue arises as the opioid crisis that began with prescription drugs has worsened with the introduction of illegal fentanyl into almost every area of the illicit drug supply. For the past two years, more than 100,000 overdose deaths have been recorded, two-thirds related to fentanyl.

At a protest in lower Manhattan, Goldin and a number of mothers who had lost children to opioid overdoses, said their aim was to destigmatize addictive drug use, including consumption sites, so that intervention help and social services can be more effectively and widely deployed.

Alexis Pleus, who lost her 28-year-old son Jeff Dugon to a heroin overdose in 2014 and went onto start TruthPharm to raise awareness, reduce stigma and advocate for policy change around drug addiction, told the Guardian that Williams’ comments “were reflective of the stigma around drug use and that fact that our country has chosen to criminalize addiction”.

“This is an extension of our government continuously wanting to support the drug war. But that fact is the government is failing to keep our children alive,” Pleus added. “Overdose fatalities keep going up and up”, and consumption sites “are a tool to keep them alive and they’re denying it. The government is derelict in its responsibilities.”

The Manhattan prosecutor’s warning falls in line with drug policies under the Trump administration. In 2019, the Trump justice department took legal action against a similar site opening in Philadelphia. Opponents of safe consumption sites generally argue that they increase the number of dealing “spots”, drug use and criminality in those areas.

In an emailed statement to the Guardian, OnPoint NYC director Sam Rivera noted that the Biden administration funds a study into the center’s two operations as a potential tool to help combat the overdose crisis.

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Rivera said the organization is “proud” to work with city, state and national officials to save lives. “Our successful partnership with the New York police department highlights the effectiveness of responding to this crisis with love and care, rather than enforcement,” he added.

Pleus and Goldin advocate for the billions of dollars that state and federal governments received in settlements from the opioid manufacturers and distributors should now be channeled into treatment and harm reduction care including consumption sites.

“They used to say we don’t have the money,” Pleus says. “But they do now! They have $50bn dollars. And guess what? They don’t have a plan of what to do with it.”

Activists believe the issue could be resolved if New York governor Kathy Hochul got behind consumption sites. New York state is currently sitting on $2.6bn in opioid settlement money but in December, she rejected a proposal from the state’s Opioid settlement fund advisory board to support overdose prevention centers.

The legal limbo that consumption sites find themselves in, said Seth Pollock of New York’s Housing Works, a charity that, among other things, distributes clean needles, is hampering harm reduction groups from reaching the addicts they might otherwise be able to help.

“The message we’d like to send to the US attorney is that he can’t play politics with people’s lives. The enforcement of laws is not an impartial matter – it is a political decision. His threat to take action against overdose prevention centers threatens New Yorkers lives.”