Above Photo: From Artforum.com
At 11:00 AM on Wednesday, around two hundred health and drug policy activists swarmed New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office, where they protested the lawmaker’s failure to deliver on a promise he made during his 2017 re-election campaign: to open the country’s first safe consumption sites. Among the thirteen demonstrators who were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct were Nan Goldin, artist and founder of Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (P.A.I.N.), and P.A.I.N. member Megan Kapler.
During the action, activists marched in front of Cuomo’s headquarters at 633 Third Avenue building near Grand Central Station for over an hour shouting chants including “What do we want? Overdose prevention centers. When do we want them? Now!” and waving signs featuring statistics such as the number of people in New York City who died of overdoses last year (1,444). Demonstrators shared stories of their own experiences with addiction and of the struggle their communities face as they try to help drug users.
Addressing the crowd, Jaron Benjamin, a member of Housing Works—the New York City–based nonprofit that works to fight AIDS and homelessness, and who organized the action along with End Overdose NY—spoke of two times he had overdosed. “I’m lucky,” he said. “In both cases, loved ones and friends were able to get me to medical treatment before I died. I’m here to tell you today that good luck and good fortune are not public health strategies.”
Dr. Kim Sue, a medical director with Harm Reduction Now, told Lauren Cavalli of Artforum that Cuomo has been stalling on opening safe injection sites for years. “I’m a doctor and I would like to work and operate one of these sites to help people who use drugs and to prevent them from dying in bathrooms. . . .There is no reason for people to die of an overdose. It is a completely preventable tragedy.”
While Cuomo has previously declared his administration’s commitment to combating the opioid epidemic and expanding programs to provide critical options for treatment—in December 2018 his office announced that it had secured more than $9 million in federal funding to provide treatment services across the state—activists have accused him of refusing to sign off on the creation of safe consumption sites, which essentially allow people to use drugs at a safe location where medical professionals would be on staff and where addicts can be introduced to other health and social services. The sites would also provide sterile supplies and be equipped with life-saving drugs such as Naloxone.
New York City mayor Bill de Blasio first introduced a plan to bring overdose prevention centers to the five bouroughs in May 2018. According to the New York Times, the centers have been considered successful in several cities in Europe and Canada. Legislators in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Seattle have also expressed support for the supervised injection sites. One of the major obstacles facing the opening of these facilites is President Donald Trump, who has called the sites illegal under federal law. The Justice Department sued a Philadelphia nonprofit earlier this year in an attempt to derail its plans to open a center.
Nan Goldin, a major player in the fight to hold the Sackler family accountable for their role in the opioid crisis, told Artforum that she had learned of the action last week. The grassroots organization Housing Works contacted P.A.I.N. to invite them to the demonstration. Goldin said that the group was eager to join. “More than 20,000 people have died in New York state since Cuomo took office. Look at all these people,” she said as she gestured toward the marchers (who were chanting “Cuomo lies, people die!”). “Their lives are expendable to Cuomo.” She added, “How many people have to die before he approves safe consumption sites?”