ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a package of bills into law Thursday aimed at combating the opioid crisis — including one bill that decriminalizes the public possession and sale of hypodermic needles and syringes.
The new law — effective immediately — eliminates a section of the state’s penal code that says possessing a needle or syringe in public is a class-A misdemeanor.
Under the old law, individuals were permitted to obtain needles and syringes from pharmacies or medical sites sanctioned by the state Department of Health’s “Expanded Syringe Access Program,” but they were still getting arrested as a strict interpretation said unlawful possession or sale was a criminal offense.
“It’s now 20 years ago that we thought we had legalized possession of hypodermics in New York, with the language that I wrote … and because of the, shall we say, overly aggressive misinterpretation of glitches in that legislation, glitches that remain, every year, police officers are sending people to Rikers Island and other jails around the state, on the grounds that they’re illegally possessing a hypodermic, and that doesn’t do any good,” said state Assembly sponsor and Health Committee Chairman Dick Gottfried (D-Manhattan) during a press conference at John Jay College.
“Treatment should always be accessible for those who need it,” he added.
The law also removes the cap of 10 needles allowed per sale to individuals under the old law.
Advocates argue the change will make it safer for those with substance use disorder and help reduce the transmission of HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and other blood-borne illnesses.
Although the DOH expanded its program in 2019 permitting LGBTQ centers, local government health departments and sexually transmitted disease clinics to hand out free syringes, critics argue the state has done nothing to curb individuals from discarding used needles in playgrounds, neighborhoods and New York City subway stations.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has tried to get DOH approval to set up four supervised injection sites in the five boroughs — so users can shoot up under the watch of medical personnel — but ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo was against the proposal as were many community activists.
Meanwhile, Hochul signed other measures including:
- One bill decriminalizes the use of “opioid antagonists” — or medicine that can help prevent relapses.
- An additional measure creates an online director for distributors of these opioid antagonists, slated to be run by the state office of Addiction Services and Supports
- Another sets up a substance abuse recovery program for inmates in state and local correctional facilities
- Another bill expands the list of crimes people with substance use disorder can commit to enter treatment programs and gives judges the option to send them to those programs rather than jail
“Addiction can impact any family, suddenly and harshly – those who find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle are there through no fault of their own,” said Hochul, who lost a nephew to a fentanyl overdose following years battling addiction.
“This is a personal battle for me and I am proud to be able to combat the opioid crisis by signing these bills into law.”
In 2019, opioids were tied to nearly 50,000 deaths nationwide according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The New York Division of the US Drug Enforcement Administration told The Post that the COVID-19 pandemic has made the opioid crisis worse in New York, accounting for a spike in methamphetamine and fentanyl seizures.
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