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As overdose deaths climb in NYC, East Harlem residents say a safe space for users is hurting their neighborhood

Josephine Stratman, New York Daily News on

Published in News & Features

NEW YORK — As the death toll from opioids skyrockets in New York, the role of supervised drug injection centers in reducing fatalities has been a key focus of attention.

The center on 126th Street in East Harlem opened in November 2021 as the nation’s first, along with another OnPoint NYC location in Washington Heights. Their purpose was to curb deaths. At the center, users bring their own drugs for use under the supervision of staff, and advocates say it’s a lifesaving model that should be replicated across the country.

But resistance — both on the local and national level — has been strong.

In East Harlem, neighbors say it’s become a magnet for drug dealers and users that’s created more drug use, violence and trash on the streets.

“It’s sad,” said Ashley Valle, a Harlem resident and mom of a 5- and 3-year-old as she stopped on her way home. “It’s basically saying drugs are OK, just don’t overdose. ... I’m scared to come out with my kids sometimes, I don’t want them to see that.”

Beyond East Harlem, lawmakers across the country are citing concerns that the centers — illegal under federal law — could worsen the opioid crisis by giving users the go-ahead to do drugs and burden neighborhoods by concentrating the fallout of the opioid crisis in already-vulnerable areas.


Gov. Kathy Hochul has jumped into the issue, saying New York’s cut of the settlement dollars from the opioid lawsuits should not be used to fund the facilities, also known as overdose prevention centers. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would have paved the way for more.

The debate has taken on a new urgency as New York confronts an overwhelming opioid crisis.

A combinations of fentanyl’s infiltration of the drug market and COVID-19 mental health struggles has pushed drug overdose deaths to record levels in New York City. In 2021, there were 2,668 overdose deaths — the most since the city started tracking them, according to a recent report. Numbers for 2022 are likely just as dismal.

East Harlem has the highest number of overdose deaths in Manhattan. The contention and tough questions there over how to solve the problem mirrors the complexity of the debate nationwide.


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