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Opinion Tough-on-drugs policies have failed. Supervised injection sites will save lives.

New York City has opened two supervised drug injection sites in the Harlem and Washington Heights neighborhoods in an effort to address the increase in overdose deaths. (Yuki Iwamura/AFP/Getty Images)

New York has become the first U.S. city to allow supervised injection sites for illegal drug users. This strategy may seem counterintuitive as U.S. drug overdose deaths reach unprecedented levels. In fact, a smart and compassionate approach, which other countries have already tested, will save lives where tough-on-drug policies have failed.

“Every four hours, someone dies of a drug overdose in New York City,” Dave A. Chokshi, the city’s health commissioner, said last week, as he announced the authorization of two sites in Manhattan where people can use illegal drugs under the supervision of trained staff who can intervene in the event of overdoses and provide users with addiction treatment options. Users must bring their own drugs. Two organizations that run needle-exchange programs formed the non-profit group that operates the injection centers in East Harlem and Washington Heights. Within just a few days since the start of operations last week, at least nine drug overdoses were reversed, according to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D).

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Proposals for supervised injection sites in other cities have stalled amid questions about whether it is legal or ethical to greenlight illegal drug use. President Donald Trump’s Justice Department sued to block a site in Philadelphia, arguing that a federal law, the “crack house statute,” prohibits operating a facility “for the purpose of unlawfully . . . using controlled substances.” Whether the Biden administration will be more sympathetic remains to be seen.

Mr. de Blasio sent a letter to the site operators promising the city would take no enforcement action against them and that all of the city’s district attorneys, save for Staten Island’s, support the facilities. Mr. de Blasio is in his final months in office, but Mayor-elect Eric Adams (D), who takes over in January, has also expressed support.

A feasibility study conducted by the city’s health department estimated that the program could save up to 130 lives a year. Drug overdoses, as Dr. Chokshi noted, are a public health crisis. Nationally, more than 100,000 people died of a drug overdose in the 12-month period that ended in April. In New York, more than 2,000 people died of a drug overdose in 2020, the highest total since the city started keeping track in 2000. Critics of supervised injection sites say they enable and encourage drug use, but countries that have pioneered the programs, including Canada, have shown promising results in preventing deaths and directing users to treatment.

There is no magic bullet to combat drug addiction, but one thing is clear: A trained person on-site to respond to someone in the throes of an overdose can save that life. More U.S. cities should embrace the opportunity to prevent needless death; the Biden administration should stay out of the way; and Congress should change federal law to clarify that local governments can authorize this lifesaving work. No more people should have to die before attitudes finally change.

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Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).