Albany TU: Lawmakers Fail to Address
Overdose Crisis During Legislative Session

June 26, 2023

As New York struggles to manage a relentless overdose crisis, lawmakers appear to be doing little to combat the high rates of fatalities and cycles of addiction that continue to plague communities across the state, having left Albany last week with little action taken.

Lawmakers left Albany without much action on ongoing opioid overdose epidemic

Albany Times Union

Raga Justin

June 25, 2023
ALBANY — As New York struggles to manage a relentless overdose crisis, lawmakers appear to be doing little to combat the high rates of fatalities and cycles of addiction that continue to plague communities across the state. 

Final pieces of legislation trickled through two extra days of session this last week as the Assembly convened to finish out their overdue agendas. But only a handful of bills addressing the opioid overdose crisis seemed to garner any attention in Albany.

Some legislation addressing opioids or substance use in general – including bills sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats – idled in committees. Progressive advocates and some lawmakers who championed more expansive harm reduction methods, such as safe injection sites, were met with silence. 

The Legislature’s apparent inactivity on substantive drug policy points to the larger question of whether New York is adequately responding to a problem that has steadily ravaged both the state and the country for years – one which shows no signs of letting up. 

Legislative leaders and top state officials, including Gov. Kathy Hochul, have long highlighted the state’s approach toward treating substance use as a public health issue instead of a criminal one. They’ve expressed deep concern about synthetic opioids like fentanyl, a potent and deadly drug that is leading fatal overdoses across the country. 

During a May press conference, more than a month before the end of session, Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie said leaders were cognizant of the ongoing overdose epidemic, adding that the budget likely did not contain a fix for the problem. But he did not mention any legislation his chamber was considering that could similarly address the issue. 

“This is not something that’s going away anytime soon. I think we’re going to have to continue the conversation,” Heastie told reporters. 

Despite messaging that fentanyl or similar substances were top of mind during policy talks this year, only one bill related to the drug passed the Legislature during this year’s session. Legislation called “Matthew’s Law,” sponsored by state Sen. Pete Harckham of Westchester and Assemblyman John McDonald of Cohoes, will expand access to drug testing products, like fentanyl test strips. Under the measure, health care professionals or pharmacists can dispense supplies to anyone through pharmacies or health care facilities. 

Public health experts and politicians alike also point to the state beginning to distribute a much-touted infusion of $2.5 billion, funds procured through settlements with opioid manufacturers and distributors that played a role in the overdose crisis. The money, managed through the state Office of Addiction Services and Supports, will play an important role in funding treatment centers, medical care and prevention efforts across the state.

But it appears the opioid settlement funding “became enough for this year,” in terms of other statewide action, said Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, adding that the Assembly’s Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Committee, which he chairs, “did not agree that it was enough. There’s a lot more that we can do.”

One tool progressives have offered up are safe injection sites, though lawmakers have been divided on how to sell the measure to their respective communities. Such sites offer a clinic-like setting for drug users to consume drugs of their choice monitored by attendants. They’ve been pointed to as a method to keep users alive until they are ready to receive treatment; moderate Democrats and Republicans have been wary of the measure, especially those in suburban and rural areas of the state. 

Steck said drug policy tends to be a bipartisan issue, though Republican lawmakers skew more toward using criminal sanctions as a tool to fight illicit sales and usage of illegal substances. 

Similarly, Democrats across the country are attempting to balance public health strategies, including a harm reduction mentality, with penalties for illicit substance dealers through the criminal justice system. 

Hochul’s budget, for example, equips law enforcement with more resources to cut off the flow of fentanyl and simultaneously expands access to drug checking technology that presumably could be used by street advocates to monitor drug supplies for users wary of deadly additives like fentanyl.

“As someone who has lost a loved one to addiction, Governor Hochul is deeply and personally committed to fighting the opioid epidemic,” spokeswoman Aja Worthy-Davis said in a statement. “Under her leadership, New York is investing in prevention, treatment, and recovery.”

Yet even as budgetary policies roll out and opioid settlement cash begins to flow in, the death toll from opioids keeps rising. 

Counties across the Capital Region have recently noted spikes across the general upward trend of fatal overdoses. In May, Rensselaer County warned of an uptick of drug-related fatalities over one weekend and pointed to an already steep number of deaths in the first five months of 2023. 

The county reported 41 deaths this year, compared to 45 fatal overdoses in 2022 and the record of 58 overdose deaths set in 2021.