Councilman Levin: Why I support safe places for drug addicts to use
You are forgiven if you read one of our rival papers and misunderstood why Councilmember Steve Levin was arrested on Wednesday for protesting about “safe injection facilities” where drug addicts can shoot up under the watchful eye of health professionals. Levin supports such sites — and was merely protesting to pressure the mayor to create them. The position might shock some community residents, who might not like the idea of bringing addicted people to their neighborhoods, but Levin strongly supports the idea…Sure enough, one day after his civil disobedience and arrest, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he wanted to create four of of these “overdose protection centers.” One of the facilities will be in Gowanus, in Levin’s district. After the Williamsburg Democrat had a chance to put himself back together after his arrest and processing, he chatted with our editor, Gersh Kuntzman, about the issue.
Gersh Kuntzman: You got arrested one day before the mayor announced his plan, which still requires state approval. Was that showboating on your part?
Steve Levin: No. I didn’t know he was going to do that when I got arrested. We were protesting because the mayor had not revealed what he was going to do. He kept saying, “It’s complicated and we’re looking at it.”
GK: Bottom line, though, you support these kinds of facilities? Why?
SL: More people die of overdoses in New York City annually than from traffic accidents, homicides and suicides combined. It’s more than 1,400 people. These centers keep people from dying. The medical data is very clear. Any public health expert says it is not controversial issue at all. Of course you want supervised injection facilities. It saves lives.
GK: But isn’t it a bad idea to invite drug users from all over Brooklyn to come to Gowanus to shoot up?
SL: I can understand why people might be concerned. But these facilities allow for people to have access to long-term care. Getting onto the road to recovery is a long process for a lot of people, so it’s important that we are keeping people alive. The widespread proliferation of prescription painkillers led people to become addicted and now we are seeing more heroin being used to replace that. And fentanyl, which is not clearly labeled, can kill in seconds. More than 60,000 Americans died in 2016 from overdoses. That’s staggering. When we see numbers like that, we have to act. It’s like in the 1950s and 1960s when Ralph Nader showed us all that cars were needlessly killing so many people. We made changes to make the public safer. Also, the mayor is well versed on this and has done the groundwork to make these centers successful. He has acknowledged public safety concerns and said he will work through with the NYPD to address community concerns.
GK: Why are these facilities better than needle exchanges?
SL: First of all, there has been a needle exchange program run by Vocal New York on Fourth Avenue in Gowanus for years and most people don’t know about it because it’s not a problem. And safe consumption sites are better than needle exchanges because instead of getting a clean needle and then going off and shooting up alone or in a public park, addicted people get a supervised place. We don’t have a robust enough health care system to get people connected to care, currently. Right now, very few doctors in New York City are allowed to prescribe Buprenorphine, for example, and addict can only get it on certain days at Bellevue.
GK: So these centers can help. But does have to happen in my backyard?
SL: It’s already happening in your backyard. Purdue Pharma has flooded our streets for years with these opioids. A pharmacy in Greenpoint put a million dollars of illegally prescribed Oxycontin on the streets. And then people turn around and say we don’t want them in our neighborhoods? People are using in every neighborhood, but behind closed doors, which is dangerous.
GK: You’re appealing to the better angels of my nature. I hate when you do that.
SL: People who recover always say they did it because someone believed in me and supported me. We can’t give up on people. This is not a political issue. We need to think of this in a human sense. To lose a loved one to an overdose is devastating. We should be doing everything we can to combat that.
GK: OK, you’ve made the medical case, but you and I both know there will be political blowback. On Monday, a Republican in Bay Ridge named Bob Capano put out a statement saying this plan would become “legal shoot up galleries” served by “drug dealers [who] are true entrepreneurs” and created by a mayor who “condones heroin use.” What do you say to that?
SL: I don’t know Bob Capano, but he should talk to medical providers in his neighborhood. They’re the experts. They work with this population. Right now in every neighborhood in New York City, there are many, many people struggling with opioid addition. And most of the time, they are getting them not from a prescription, but illegally. So I think that people need to understand what these programs would do, which is provide people with a safe and clean place to use safely dispose of any syringes. I’d rather people be using in a safe facility down the street than have it … in our parks. This plan does not create a problem. It is addressing a very serious problem.
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