The Pros and Cons of NYC's Opioid Action Plan

By Paul Gaita 03/16/17
One strategy is to arrest more street-level dealers, a move which has been proven ineffective many times.
Mayor De Blasio and wife Chirlane McCray
Mayor De Blasio and wife Chirlane McCray announcing the Healing NYC initiative Photo via YouTube

With drug overdose deaths at their highest rate ever in New York City—an estimated 1,300 in 2016 alone—Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced a plan to reduce that number within five years—at a cost of $38 million per year.

Elements of the initiative have drawn praise, especially in regard to the expansion of treating opioid addiction through medications like Suboxone and greater distribution of the overdose antagonist naloxone.

But an op-ed in the New York Daily News by former Fix contributor, Maia Szalavitz, draws attention to a possible downside to the plan: targeting police efforts towards dealers who sell extremely dangerous drugs like fentanyl may end up putting more addicts behind bars and reduce the number of "Good Samaritans" who call 911 in the event of a drug overdose for fear of arrest.

The plan, announced on March 13 and titled "HealingNYC," seeks to reduce drug overdose deaths by 35% by 2022 through a multi-tier approach of 12 strategies. Chief among these are the distribution of 100,000 naloxone kits, significant increases to treatment programs, city shelters, pharmacies and the Rikers Island Visitor Center—while also equipping all 23,000 patrol officers with naloxone kits.

Educational outreach to adults and children throughout the city in regards to opioid misuse and addiction will also be expanded, especially in neighborhoods in the Bronx and Staten Island that have experienced the greatest number of opioid overdose deaths. The city also plans to increase the number of New Yorkers receiving methadone and buprenorphine (Suboxone) treatment from 38,000 to 58,000 by the 2022 target date—with a particular focus on treatment for individuals in transit to, currently incarcerated in, or leaving New York City jails.

But as Szalavitz notes, the final strategy of HealingNYC may pose the greatest area of concern for residents, law enforcement and health officials alike. The plan calls for "targeted investigations into both individuals and the criminal organizations that traffic in dangerous opioids" in part through the expansion of Overdose Response Squads, which will provide more thorough investigations into overdose deaths and then "rapidly identify dealers [and] dismantle their operations." 

But arresting more street-level dealers appears to have a greater impact on incarceration rates than drug trade reduction. Federal Bureau of Justice statistics show that two-thirds are addicts themselves who have little idea of the scope of the operation they are involved in, and reap relatively minor amounts of its profits; sending more of them to prison may prove to be a repeat of measures enacted in New York City in 1973 by then-governor Nelson Rockefeller, who imposed minimum sentences of 15 years to life for selling two ounces of cocaine, heroin or marijuana, or possessing four ounces of the same drugs.

The laws failed to stop the spread of crack cocaine through New York in the 1980s or cut down on heroin use, which remains at one of the highest concentrations in the United States. They did, however, triple the number of inmates serving time in the New York jail system for drug crimes from 11% to 35% by 1994.

Targeting the street-level drug trade may also have a chilling effect on Good Samaritan laws, which protect individuals from prosecution if they call emergency medical services to assist with a drug overdose. As studies have noted, many drug users have witnessed at least one drug overdose, yet less than a quarter reported calling 911, largely due to the fear of being arrested.

And while police commissioner James P. O'Neill has stated that his officers are "not looking to lock up the person who OD-ed, or even the person that might have been with him," Szalavitz notes that it "remains to be seen" if arresting street dealers can flush out the problem at its root.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.