Could "Safe Space" for Taking Drugs Lower OD Deaths & Boost Treatment? Several NY Groups Say Yes

May 7, 2017

A Safe Space for drug use would include consumption areas that keep things sterile. Supporters of the idea say they reduce disease transmission and can get drug addicts in touch with rehab and detox treatments.
Credit Chris Bolt/WAER News

A statewide campaign visited Syracuse promoting safe spaces for people to use illegal drugs – in hopes of reducing overdose deaths and possibly curbing the drug use.  Angela Woody is with Vocal-New York, a group that works on drug policy, H-I-V AIDS issues, and mass incarceration.  She was in Syracuse with the Safe Shape Tour.  She says I-V and other drug users are shooting up or smoking in places that present a number of problems.

“Across the state of New York a lot of people are using in public places, like public parks or public restrooms, like McDonalds bathrooms or Starbucks or outside.  Neither of those are sterile environments.  Also when people use at home alone in their apartments, there’s no one there who’s able to intervene if they should have an overdose.”


  • From 2010 to 2015, 145% increase in overdose deaths
  • In 2016: 61 deaths related to heroin or heroin mixed with fentanyl
  • In 2016: another 32 deaths related to fentanyl
  • In 2016: 78 prescription opioid related deaths

Syracuse has needle exchange programs through A-C-R Health.  Program Assistant Director Julia LaVere (la VEER) says that solves some problems.

“What they would be doing is either reusing a needle which isn’t safe.  They should only use a needle once and discard it.  Or sharing needles with others, which promotes infectious disease transmission.” 

The group VOCAL NY and ACR Health put up this concept for a safe space. It has different areas for supplies, consumption, and staff area. Such spaces could be part of existing services or could be mobile, depending an an area's need.
Credit Chris Bolt/WAER News

The Safe Spaces idea would carry that one step further.  Woody says needle exchange programs have shown that they can get people in touch with other health and treatment help.

“People that participate in receiving syringe exchange from syringe exchanges oftentimes they don’t receive services elsewhere.  So this about bringing people in and giving them an access point, starting that intervention earlier on.  We in fact know when people do have a safer space to consume drugs that 30% or more of them will go on to receive detoxification or rehabilitation services.”

Vocal New York and A-C-R Health set up a model of what a safe space might look like.  It included areas for drug use, with stainless steel tables, clean syringes, 

The supplies area in the Safe Space has clean syringes, cotton and water used to clean the drugs, safe smoking kits to prevent disease transmission from burned lips on crack pipes that get shared.
Credit Chris Bolt/WAER News

cotton and water for cleaner drug use, and sterile smoking devices.  Staff could intervene in an overdose, or suggest treatment. 

The safe space idea is not legal in New York right now.  It needs a change in state law…or the declaration of a public health emergency.  And Woody says 13-hundred drug deaths in New York City last year and at least another 83 here in Onondaga County sounds like an health emergency to her.