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Lawmakers call for safe injection sites in Rochester


Assemblymember Demond Meeks and a group of community activists on Monday called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to take bold action to stem the opioid crisis, including creating supervised drug consumption centers, also known as safe injection sites.

“We have issues in this community that have been plaguing us for some time,” Meeks said at a news conference on Ormond Street. “We heard about the ills as it relates to violence in the Rochester community. But one of the things we don't talk much about is the overdoses.”

Monroe County’s Heroin Task Force data show that there were roughly 700 overdoses in Monroe County last year, 137 of those incidents ended in death. Those numbers were down slightly down from 2019, and the numbers are trending lower this year, with 330 overdoses to date, according to task force data.

The vast majority of the overdoses were in the city of Rochester, and in the instance of most fatal overdoses, the victim's last moments went unobserved.

Meeks said these numbers show that the current course isn’t working, and there is need for “bold government solutions to do what’s right by the community.”

“Now is the time for elected leaders that have the political will, to do everything that we possibly can,” Meeks said.

Among those bold solutions, he said, was to create supervised drug consumption centers, also know as safe injection sites or overdose prevention centers. In those centers, people would be able to use drugs with clean needles without legal consequences.

Meeks and Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart, who joined him, threw their support behind the idea. Both said these centers could save lives.

Barnhart said a tendency among a wide swath of the public to overlook opioid addicts as people was stopping government leaders from taking the necessary steps to stop overdoses.

“They’re scapegoats, they’re objects of derision, they’re political props and villains,” Barnhart said. “We need to get over this or we’ll never solve this.”

Meeks said the $1.1 billion that New York is due to receive as part of an opioid settlement would likely pay for the facilities.

Critics of such programs have attacked them for what they describe as enabling illicit drug use, but so-called harm-reduction efforts are gaining traction.

President Joe Biden has made expanding harm-reduction efforts a priority, and Congress recently included $30 million in The American Rescue Act for evidence-based harm-reduction services, the first time Congress has appropriated funds for that purpose.

In the case of safe injection centers, the chief goal is not to help drug users stop, but to reduce their risk of dying or acquiring infectious diseases by providing them with sterile equipment and supervision.

Ryan Thorsren Carson, the executive director of an advocacy organization called No OD NY, said he’d like to see such centers in every city in the state.

A bill to create the centers was introduced during this year’s session but has not yet been put to a vote

Includes reporting by CITY Editor David Andreatta.

James Brown is a reporter for WXXI News, a media partner of CITY.