WASHINGTON – For some two decades now, the nation’s political class has failed to stem the deadly tide of opioids flooding local communities nationwide. Even with America on the cusp of witnessing our one millionth opioid overdose, most lawmakers oppose so-called safe injection sites — like the two recently opened in New York City. But a growing number of progressives, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Cory Booker, are now embracing these once taboo sites even as they remain a political third rail to most of their colleagues.
“It’s a very big deal,” Ocasio-Cortez told The News Station while walking to a vote in the Capitol.
Such a big deal that the Trump administration blocked the previous attempt at this historic first, in America at least. “Overdose Prevention Centers” — as they’re formally called — are places where regular drug users have the option to, say, shoot up heroin with medical professionals and potentially lifesaving resources on hand, like naloxone.
The New York Democrat knows the prevention centers her city opened late last month are surprising to many Americans. Still, AOC’s predicting perceptions will change.
“As the public starts to see how these roll out more, there’ll be a greater understanding of how they can actually help harm reduction and help treatment,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
After 50 years of a War on Drugs fomented and fostered by American politicians of all stripes — including now-President Joe Biden who as a senator sponsored, and seems to stand by, the 1994 crime bill (formally the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act) — Ocasio-Cortez knows most of her congressional colleagues think safe injection sites will incentivize drug use.
“It’s definitely understandable why people have those hesitancies and misperceptions, at first,” she said.
The American-Made War on Drugs obviously gave us stringent anti-drug laws domestically – along with leaving its indelible mark on everything from social norms to our political culture — but those laws, AOC argues, also constrained American imagination and ingenuity in addressing glaring substance abuse problems other nations tackled head on.
While overdose deaths in the U.S. have mostly soared – hitting one tragic peak after another and another or another – other nations have employed safe injection sites resulting in declining rates of overdose deaths and infectious disease spread through needles. Nations with safe injection sites also found more addicts seeking treatment, according to the American Medical Association.
AOC knows many of her colleagues don’t read those reports.
“It’s important to note that New York City is not the first place to do this,” Ocasio-Cortez responded when asked about other lawmaker’s misgivings. “There are many, many other case studies of different cities and communities that have done this around the world and how it’s actually helped us make great strides towards really addressing people who are dealing with substance use disorders.”
Where My Republicans At?
Still, even as AOC has some GOP allies when it comes to unwinding the War on Drugs, those allies aren’t here for safe drug injection sites.
“I have a phobia of needles,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) dismissively quipped to The News Station, through a smirk, when asked about why he opposes the new NYC sites.
It’s also a non-starter to current and former Republican leaders.
“No, that’s too far. Seattle is a mess,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) – who Liz Cheney replaced as House GOP Conference chairwoman and who is now the top Republican on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee — told The News Station at the Capitol. “We have a crisis on our hands. We have record substance abuse, we have record suicides, we have record despair and we need to be offering support to individuals.”
“This is just a dangerous road to go down,” Sen. Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV) told The News Station after casting a vote at the Capitol.
Even Republicans who buck party orthodoxy and support needle exchange programs in states overwhelmed by the opioid epidemic aren’t even momentarily entertaining supervised injection sites.
The former House member has been focused on this opioid crisis – which has, arguably, pounded her state of West Virginia harder than any other — since she was first sent to Washington in 2001.
Now a respected senator — she’s actually liked on both sides of the divide here in Washington — Capito maintains there was tangible progress being witnessed on the ground in addressing the opioid epidemic, through the likes of community response teams and outreach programs, before the nation was ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic.
“The pandemic set us back. I’d rather see us go back to reinvigorating those efforts where we can actually provide the support and education,” Capito said. “I don’t think this is the answer.”
Many Democrats Are Playing Ostrich Too
Before New York City unveiled its new harm reduction sites (‘harm reduction’ is a new-ish term that basically means treating addiction as a disease, not a crime), back in 2019 public health workers with nonprofit Safehouse tried to open their own supervised injection site in Philadelphia. Federal prosecutors sued and have blocked it since.
This fall the Supreme Court rejected a request to review the case by local officials from more than a dozen counties and cities — including the City of Brotherly Love’s Mayor Jim Kenney, a Democrat — along with attorneys general from 10 states and Washington, D.C.
The suit was initially brought by the Trump administration, but the Biden Justice Department let it proceed unimpeded.
Leaders — and lawyers — with Safehouse are vowing to continue their fight in the nation’s lower courts where they had one high profile victory back in 2019. They know Biden’s administration will have to weigh in shortly.
Even with the high-profile Philadelphia case being ping-ponged through the courts for two years now, the federal lawmaker whose district encompasses the proposed supervised injection site still keeps it at arm’s length.
“I haven’t given much thought to it,” Rep. Dwight Evans (D-PA) — a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — told The News Station.
I first pressed him on this case two years ago, while I was the Washington correspondent for Philly’s NPR station WHYY, the congressman again pretended he’d never heard of the issue on his front doorstep.
“I haven’t given much thought to it,” Evans said, again, as he was leaving the Capitol.
Proponents Remain Aghast It’s Even Being Debated
While safe drug injection sites remain novel to evil for many federal lawmakers, they’re not a new idea. Even domestically.
This summer, Rhode Island lawmakers approved a pilot program for safe consumption sites that has yet to be launched. . Efforts to open similar sites remain underway in state legislatures, like in Massachusetts and California. And in 2020 Oregon became the first state in the nation to decriminalize all drugs. A Washington state Supreme Court ruling this spring briefly legalized drug possession across the state until the legislature stepped in about four months later and re-criminalized possession, making it a misdemeanor.
That’s why some Democrats from the northwest are eagerly watching to see how the courts handle safe injection sites on the east coast.
“This is a rational approach,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told The News Station while walking back to his office after voting on the House floor. “Getting a few more of these sites licensed and operating makes a big difference.”
For Blumenauer, there’s no question localities – and eventually Congress itself – need to overhaul the anti-drug policies states have adopted over the decades to maintain federal funding. The congressman remembers how the Reagan administration and others worsened the AIDS epidemic in the eighties and nineties.
As a 14-term lawmaker, he’s also been in power since the opioid epidemic first began indiscriminately ravaging rural and urban communities, along with country clubs, across America.
“The federal government has been part of these epidemics, and people have died,” Blumenauer said.
The federal government is still a part of this epidemic.
Candidate-Biden Disagrees With President Biden
To wrap up the Democratic presidential primary, Joe Biden tacked to the left on drug policy. He’s now president and his administration has been scattered on drug policy, seemingly at war with itself – well, at least with past policy positions or statements from its inner ranks, including the likes of Vice President Kamala Harris, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and countless others.
When it comes to cannabis, candidate Biden rhetorically moved from calling marijuana a “gateway drug” to supporting decriminalization. Since entering the White House, Biden’s made no efforts to decriminalize cannabis. Instead, he fired staffers for failing drug tests. He also seems more in line with the GOP when it comes to slapping stiff and unforgiving mandatory minimums – which most federal lawmakers have decried of late – on fentanyl dealers.
The president’s press operation has polished talking points, yet it remains unclear where Biden and the tax-payer-funded lawyers under his employ at the Department of Justice will land on safe injection sites.
In a recent CNN interview, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) Rahul Gupta – aka the drug czar — broke with this historically, at the very least, pro-War on Drugs president and seemed to show a willingness to give supervised injection sites a try.
Record carnage from overdoses may have awoken some in this White House to what’s been plaguing American households and hospitals alike for more than 20 years, but this is nothing new.
“We are dealing with an extraordinarily large level of death and destruction surrounding drug overdoses — it’s a stunning amount,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) told The News Station while walking next to the trams under the Capitol. “If we can take those numbers down a little bit through these sites we should be doing that. These are human lives.”
For just shy of a decade, Booker – a former mayor — has been one of the steadiest and loudest voices in Washington calling for upending U.S. drug policy.
“We don’t solve the problems often when we have this uncompromisingly tough on crime view, because it often actually creates more crime,” Booker said.
The opioid crisis isn’t constrained to Booker or AOC’s urban districts, though they hope officials from the American heartland to the deep south study the efforts public health officials are deploying in NYC. Because, by all counts, this isn’t a New York City problem.
“When you look through certain areas and cities you see, you know, misuse is happening all over the place,” Ocasio-Cortez told The News Station. “This problem is here, and there are things that we can do to treat it.”