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Douglas Capraro Douglas Capraro

NYC Rally Demands a More Compassionate, Effective Response to OD Deaths

A rise in heroin-related fatalities sparked a demonstration at City Hall this morning, calling for increased naloxone distribution and other measures.

3 Substance

Lawmakers, health officials, and community groups braved the rain at City Hall this morning to advocate new solutions to a surge in fatal heroin overdoses. Figures released by NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene last week show a 100% increase in heroin overdose deaths in the city between 2010 and 2013, to 420 total in 2013. The demonstrators demanded better services and legal reforms to help treat people with addiction and increase the availability of the overdose reversal drug naloxone.

New York State Assembly member Jeffery Dinowitz (D-Bronx) sponsored a bill to increase access to naloxone that passed back in June and came into effect last month. He believes that this “will save hundreds if not thousands of lives.” He also supports a more practical, public health-focused approach in general: “We know the supply of heroin is limitless—so the real way to fight the war on drugs is prevention, is harm reduction. That’s the only we are going to win it.”

VOCAL New York, a grassroots organization dedicated to building power among low-income people affected by HIV/AIDS, the drug war and mass incarceration, organized today’s demonstration. And VOCAL member Shante Owens gave a particularly impassioned account of how his life was saved by naloxone. A former heroin user, Owens said that he is “living proof” that naloxone works, and detailed his near-death experience of an overdose that was reversed by the drug. “I’m here today because of it,” he said, “and it showed me that my course in life is to give back to my community, the same one that I came from. And that if [naloxone] could save my life, it could save their life.”

Many of the dozens of demonstrators proudly waved their naloxone overdose prevention kits in the air to emphasize the importance of having the drug on hand in case of emergency. But naloxone was not their only concern.

Howard Josepher, executive director of Exponents, a Manhattan-based nonprofit that helps people affected by addiction, incarceration and HIV/AIDS, said “Although we are doing as much as we can with Narcan and overdose prevention kits, we got to do more with our treatment process.” Like many of the other speakers at today’s rally, he believes that public policy should focus much less on enforcement: “We have to move hope forward with a public health approach and not a punitive approach.”

Stephen Levin, chair of the General Welfare Committee for Brooklyn, emphasized that the overdose issue is of critical importance nationwide. “We are seeing the proliferation of drugs that are much more easily accessible, much more dangerous than the traditional heroin we’ve seen on the streets for many many years,” he said. “Now because of prescription drugs and access, we are seeing a wave right now, and we need to do everything we can to hold back.”