With rocketing overdoses and deepening inequality, New York City is looking to install vending machines with free syringes and naloxone, a drug that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose
Details of the plan can be seen in a Request for Proposals (RFP) issued in December 2021 by the non-profit Fund for Public Health in New York on behalf of the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
The idea is to place 10 vending machines in strategic locations throughout NYC that are “disproportionately burdened” by drug overdoses. The automatic vendors will freely dispense sterile syringes, naloxone, and additional health supplies including menstrual supplies, safer sex kits, sharps containers, pregnancy tests, and water.
Like many parts of the US, NYC is still in the midst of an opioid epidemic going on since the late 1990s. NYC reported 2,062 overdose deaths in 2020, the highest since reporting began in 2000. That figure is significantly up for the previous year, which recorded 1,497 overdose deaths. Opioids were involved in 85 percent of the deaths and, for the fourth year in a row, fentanyl – a very potent synthetic opioid – was the most common substance involved in overdoses.
Digging into this data reveals some clear trends, which this latest project hopes to address. The largest increases in overdose deaths were seen among men, Black people, residents of high-poverty neighborhoods, and neighborhoods that have a history of high overdose rates. The RPF explicitly mentions that it attempts to reallocate resources and services in a way that “addresses barriers imposed by structural racism [...] and White privilege.”
“It’s about making the material, the health equipment and the health supplies accessible to the people who need it the most, where they’re already at, on their schedule and on their timeline, and without the stigma or shame,” said Sheila P. Vakharia, deputy director for research and academic engagement at the Drug Policy Alliance, according to the New York Times.
While this approach may appear controversial to some, there’s solid evidence that taking a more open stance on drug use can actually help public health.
For instance, research shows that syringe services programs, distributing free, new, sterile needles for drug use, reduce overdose and infectious disease rates, while not increasing crime in the local area. Equally, informing people and distributing naloxone has been linked to a significant reduction in opioid overdose death rates.