Drug Reformers Fault Cuomo’s Approach to Fentanyl

Jeremy Saunders, a co-director of VOCAL-NY, spoke out against the governor's statement on fentanyl. | TWITTER

The End Overdose NY Campaign blasted Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to add fentanyl, a powerful opioid, to the list of controlled substances.

“It will not save a single life,” warned Jeremy Saunders, co-director of VOCAL-NY, a leader in the coalition.

“We won’t end the overdose crisis by filling up jail cells,” Daniel Raymond, a senior policy planner for the Harm Reduction Coalition, added in the campaign’s statement. He advocated instead giving drug users fentanyl strips that would allow them to test their drugs for the highly potent painkiller that is sold by Chinese companies over the Internet.

The campaign is demanding a public health approach to stemming the constant increase in overdose deaths. In 2011, an advisory from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta warned of an alarming increase in deaths from opioid-related overdoses. Since then, the deaths have increased every year in New York and in the nation. “NYC Health in 2017,” an official city publication, said one New York City resident died every seven hours and the number had increased every year for six years.

Fentanyl is involved in about half of these fatalities. In contrast to the governor’s law-and-order approach, the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins issued a study showing that even among hardcore drug users, 42 percent who had witnessed a person dying from an overdose wanted to test their drugs and didn’t want fentanyl added to their drugs. The study concluded that using the strips to check for fentanyl would help users inject smaller amounts over a longer period of time.

St. Anne’s Corner of Harm Reduction, a Bronx needle exchange, has posted a YouTube video demonstrating how the strips work: youtube.com/watch?v=gIovAAV-Amg. (Full disclosure: I used to be chair of that program.)

Banning fentanyl “does not make people less likely to come in contact with the drug” said Kassandra Frederique, the New York State director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Criminalization has never shut off the supply of drugs. But allowing drug user to inject slowly and in the presence of overdose prevention workers would prevent deaths from overdoses. Should an overdose occur, naloxone, a spray squirted into a person’s nose, promptly restores normal breathing.

End Overdose NY advocates harm reduction rather than criminalization that leave users stigmatized and feeling helpless.

“We need universal access to harm reduction tools,” said Frederique in the campaign’s statement.

The reform advocates’ plan calls for medical-assisted treatment, especially with Buprenorphine, a pill that calms users and curbs their craving for heroin. It should be available in jails, emergency rooms, and syringe exchange programs, the reformers said. Rather than jailing users, they should be sent to harm reduction programs and the homeless offered housing. In Portugal, which discourages police intervention, when a user is arrested they are taken to a harm reduction center for counseling.

The most immediate relief sought by the coalition would be funding and legal permission for needle exchanges to offer users a safe place to use their drugs (see story here). Turning needle exchanges into safer consumption spaces and expanding their services would allow for post-overdosing support.

Summing up their complaints about Cuomo’s law-and-order approach, Raymond said he “boasts about giving law enforcement the tools they need to make more arrests, but says nothing about providing people at risk of overdose with the tools they need to survive.”