Drug addicts shooting up. Needle-wielding deviants running rampant. Police standing idly by as heroin flows into arms, and needles are swapped in streets and parks. This is the grim picture the New York Post paints of the state’s new harm reduction legislation.

But it is wrong.

In a nation that’s increasingly skeptical of the media, journalists have an obligation—and an opportunity—to report facts rather than pushing their own (or their publication’s) agenda. The NY Post’s recent article on New York’s statewide harm reduction legislation perpetuates a narrative that ignores evidence and context, and excludes the voices of those directly involved.

In response to the continued rise in opioid overdoses, the New York State Legislature passed a number of common sense laws embracing an evidence-based harm reduction strategy, signed into law in early October. One part of that package, NY Senate Bill S.2523, decriminalizes residual amounts of controlled substances found in drug paraphernalia and regulates the sale of hypodermic needles. In the midst of the ongoing opioid and overdose crisis, the New York State Legislature has rightly recognized that harm reduction is an essential and evidence-based tool that can save lives and mitigate the negative consequences of drug use.

The NY Post article attacking this syringe decriminalization policy makes a variety of unsubstantiated claims about how the law is playing out in New York City.

The authors start by citing a directive telling New York City Police Department (NYPD) commanders not to take “any enforcement action” against individuals possessing hypodermic needles. Failing to provide insights from a single NYPD representative, the article contends that officers have been ordered to “do nothing as addicts shoot up.” Not only is this a poor and overreaching interpretation of the memo they quote, it would go against law enforcements’ duty to render aid to any civilian in need of medical attention.

In this regard, a suspected drug overdose is no different than a suspected heart attack victim. Police in New York City have the training and ability to administer the overdose-reversal drug naloxone. According to page 231 of the NYCPD Public Patrol Guide, if an officer encounters an unresponsive individual suspected to have overdosed, they are to administer naloxone, if appropriate. According to the NYPD Opioid Antagonist Report for the second quarter of 2021, a total of 9,736 drug-reversal kits were assigned to the various police departments, 24,564 officers were trained to use naloxone and it was administered 86 times. In 2020, 52,491 kits were distributed, 60,454 officers were trained and 337 doses were administered. This hardly exemplifies that the NYPD is doing nothing to intervene in the opioid epidemic.

The article also wrongly suggests that NY SB S.2523 will have far-reaching negative consequences for the city of New York, for law enforcement, and even for people who use drugs. They claim that police will be threatened by “needle-wielding junkies”; syringes and other drug paraphernalia will litter the city’s parks and streets; people who inject drugs will be more likely to share used needles; and individuals with substance use disorder will find it harder to quit. These troubling suppositions go directly against the decades of peer-reviewed evidence that support harm reduction strategies, and they fail to recognize that NY SB S.2523 is part of a bigger, comprehensive package. The reality is that this practical approach is not something to be scared of. Rather, it benefits all of us.

Since 2009, agencies have recognized that syringe services programs and syringe decriminalization improve working conditions for law enforcement officers. Not only do they reduce the likelihood of being stuck by a dirty needle, they can build trust with communities without increasing drug use or crime rates. In fact, syringe exchange programs and strategically placed sharps containers make the public safer by encouraging proper syringe and needle disposal, thus reducing the likelihood that contaminated equipment will make it to the streets.

In direct opposition to claims made in the article, syringe legalization decreases needle sharing among people who inject drugs, thereby reducing the spread of infectious diseases like HIV. Indeed, law enforcement encounters and syringe criminalization make people more likely to share needles and less likely to access supportive services. This is one of the justifications offered by lawmakers supporting the legislation.

And while the NY Post article claims that increased permissiveness will only make it harder for people to quit using, data suggest otherwise. NY SB S.2523 seeks to rectify state laws preventing individuals from accessing harm reduction services. And without the threat of arrest, people who use drugs have an unprecedented opportunity to request assistance in obtaining drug treatment. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people who engage with syringe services are five times more likely to enter treatment than those who don’t use such programs. And providing medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD), an approach founded in harm reduction principles, is more effective at promoting long-term recovery than abstinence-only treatments. It also cuts overdose risk, criminal activity and when offered in jails and prisons—something other pieces of New York’s recent legislative package makes possible—drastically reduces recidivism.

For more than 40 years, statutes criminalizing substance use and the possession of related equipment have failed to curb the potential harms associated with substance use. In New York, overdose deaths climbed from 5.4 per 100,000 persons in 2010 to 15.1 per 100,000 people in 2018. Throughout the pandemic, this number continued to soar. But, research tells us that arrest is an ineffective deterrent to substance use. If it worked, we wouldn’t be seeing continued increases in overdose deaths or the open-air drug use in New York City that the NY Post highlights.

Rather than signaling a surrender, New York’s harm reduction legislation, including NY SB S.2523, suggests lawmakers are ready to take an approach that is guided by evidence. By covering the new policy with zero regard for the data that drive it, the NY Post has failed in their journalistic obligation to readers. By promoting a divisive, fear-based narrative over facts, they’ve failed the city and state of New York.

Image credit: dell

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