Treating Opioid Addiction Like the Public Health Crisis It Is
Substance use disorders are unequivocally a public health issue. Recent estimates suggest that roughly 20 million American adults need treatment for a substance use disorder, and that only 10.8% are receiving the care they need. It is both unjust and bad policy to approach under-treatment with over-criminalization. Andrew Yang recognizes that “tough on crime” drug policies are not only insufficient, ineffective, and inhumane – they are also not helping those with addiction heal. This is evidenced by the fact that more overdose deaths were recorded in the year ending in May 2020 than ever before.
A Yang administration will take a public health approach to treating addiction, expanding successful programs that replace criminalization – which only compounds the negative effects of substance abuse – with comprehensive social and medical services to put struggling New Yorkers on the path to recovery.
As mayor, Andrew Yang will:
1. Expand the Heroin Overdose Prevention & Education (“HOPE”) Program to every borough. The HOPE Program launched in Staten Island in 2017 to divert those arrested for low-level substance-related crimes to treatment rather than being sent to jail. The post-arrest and pre-arraignment program allows participants to clear their arrest record by meeting with a licensed counselor at one of the programs’ designated Resource and Recovery Centers within seven days of the date of their release for an assessment, developing a service plan, and engaging in services within 37 days post-arrest. A report from Metis Associates commissioned by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice found that HOPE participants were considerably less likely to be rearrested than a comparison population (19% vs. 44%). A Yang administration will expand the HOPE Program to all five boroughs and ensure the program includes additional misdemeanors like petit larceny, trespassing, possession of hypodermic needles, and other non-violent charges. A Yang administration will also ensure that program participants have access to additional services, such as supportive housing and other wraparound services, as needed.
2. Advocate for the decriminalization of syringes and drug paraphernalia at the State level. Under State law, syringe possession is a Class-A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail. This sort of criminalization only serves to push those who are struggling with addiction away from the services they need, such as New York City’s successful syringe exchange program. A Yang administration will lean heavily on the Democrat-controlled State Legislature to decriminalize syringe possession so that New Yorkers feel comfortable accessing potentially life-saving services. In addition, a Yang administration will direct the NYPD to focus on violent crime rather than on criminalized behaviors that don’t pose a public safety risk, especially when such behaviors have proven to be enforced disproportionately against Black and brown New Yorkers.
3. Implement and fund Overdose Prevention Centers (OPCs) in New York City. OPCs have been found to significantly reduce overdose deaths in surrounding neighborhoods among other public health benefits like reduced syringe sharing and increased uptake of addiction treatment, with no corresponding increase in community drug use. While the NYC Department of Health released a report calling for the creation of OPCs in 2017, a proposal to implement OPCs at four locations in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx has since stalled. A Yang administration will immediately authorize the implementation of OPCs at the sites already designated by the DOH and seek to identify additional sites for OPCs where the need is greatest across all five boroughs.
4. Expand access to buprenorphine. Public health experts and district attorneys both have advocated for decriminalization as a strategy to reduce opioid deaths – an even more pressing goal in light of the significant increase in opioid deaths throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Buprenorphine is a critical component of the public health response to the opioid epidemic and a Yang administration will ensure that it is affordable and accessible to all who need it by working with NYC Health + Hospitals to increase the number of buprenorphine-prescribing doctors and incentivizing doctors to work at MAT (medication-assisted treatment) opioid abuse treatment facilities.
5. Build a Neighborhood Action Center in every borough and ensure they provide community-specific resources. Neighborhood Action Centers are neighborhood-based one-stop shops that bring together health care providers, New York City agencies, and community-based organizations and programs under one roof. These vital hubs should be available in every borough and should be attuned to the needs of the communities they serve. For example on Staten Island, which has the highest overdose death rate in New York City, we will build a Neighborhood Action Center that provides addiction prevention and treatment services to patients.