No other city in the county has anything like it - legal places for people to go to do illegal drugs as a way to cut down on overdose deaths.
One year after New York City opened two Overdose Prevention Centers called OnPoint NYC, they've proven to be life savers. They also continue to be controversial.
When city leaders announced last November they were opening the centers in Washington Heights and East Harlem, they knew the centers would help save lives. They didn't anticipate just how many lives would be saved.
So far, more than 2,000 drug users have visited the centers and staff members have intervened in more than 600 overdoses. That's close to five times the number of lives saved than they originally expected.
Unlike doing drugs on the streets, inside the centers, there are supervisors watching people do drugs and they intervene in the case of an overdose. Oftentimes, they do this by administering oxygen to the person if their eyes start to roll back after doing drugs. In other cases, they administer Naloxone, which is a drug that can help reverse an overdose.
The centers do not provide drugs, people bring their own drugs with them. They do however provide clean supplies and testing supplies to see if drugs have fentanyl inside. Fentanyl is being laced in many street drugs and a small dose can be lethal.
"For me, it's not controversial, it's righteous," said Director of OnPoint NYC Sam Rivera. "It's the right thing to do for people who are dying."
7 On Your Side Investigates spoke with a drug user named Mark, who said the center has saved his life multiple times.
"I tell you since I've come here, I haven't overdosed in the last six months," said Mark. "I wish I understood what the attraction is and why I can't stop."
Efforts to open similar sites across the country, in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, have failed. Opponents have expressed concerns it could enable users and increase illegal activity. That has not been proven at the locations in New York City. But some local community groups have expressed concerns about people loitering outside.
"How we manage it is we go outside and if our people, if sometimes when they leave here and they're outside chatting, move on, you have to move on," said Rivera.
Rivera said they patrol the outside of the facilities on a regular basis. People who use the centers are encouraged to stay if they want to take advantage of the programs inside. Users have access to treatment programs and medical care.
For many users, it's the first doctor they've seen in years.
"We see a lot of really serious chronic wounds, we see people with really, really uncontrolled high blood pressure, blood sugar, all those types of things from not having access to medical care," said Dr. Mike Pappas who works at the center in East Harlem.
And while the centers may still be controversial one year after opening, they do have the backing of the city's top doctor.
"The idea that we are going to eliminate all drug use in our country, in the world, is a fallacy," said NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan. "What we need to do is focus on saving lives."
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