Originally published June 6, 2023 11:00 am PDT
The city of New York has taken an unorthodox step in its battle against drug abuse by unveiling vending machines designed specifically to cater to drug users’ bad habits, with offerings such as free crack pipes.
Unveiled on Monday, these vending machines are a part of the city’s apparent efforts to combat the surge in drug overdoses.
Positioned in some of NYC’s neighborhoods hardest hit by the drug crisis, these machines deviate from the norm, swapping traditional snack items like candy bars and chips for drug-related paraphernalia.
The initiative comes from the city Health Department, intending to alleviate the worsening drug overdose epidemic in the five boroughs.
Speaking at a press conference near the first machine, Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner Ashwin Vasan highlighted the severity of the situation: “Every three hours, we’re losing a New Yorker [to drugs]. And it looks like 2022 is on track to be our highest year ever in overdoses.”
He expressed concern about the increasing prevalence of fentanyl and the emergence of Xylazine, a veterinary drug known colloquially as “Tranq” or the “zombie drug.”
Fentanyl, an immensely powerful synthetic opioid medication, has gained approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its exceptional effectiveness as an analgesic (pain reliever) and anesthetic.
Compared to morphine, it boasts a staggering potency that exceeds it by about 100 times, while surpassing heroin by 50 times in its analgesic properties.
These vending machines, bearing resemblance to typical snack dispensers, also contain what health officials deem life-saving tools.
The items include the overdose-reversing drug Naloxone, commonly known as Narcan, along with fentanyl test strips, and a “Safer Smoking” kit equipped with a sturdy stem pipe, mouthpiece, and lip balm for crack and crystal meth use.
Other items, provided free of charge upon entering a zip code, include “Safer Sniffing” kits, condoms, tampons, nicotine gum, and first-aid packages.
Although syringes are not currently included, Vasan mentioned the possibility of their inclusion in future machines.
To be placed in areas most affected by drug overdoses, these $11,000 machines are part of the city’s strategy to combat the drug crisis.
Vasan regards these vending machines as “an important arrow in our quiver,” a vital instrument that brings life-saving tools directly to New Yorkers.
The pilot program was announced last year in response to a spike in drug overdoses in the city.
With a record 2,668 drug deaths in 2021 in the city and predictions suggesting an even higher tally for 2022, the necessity for action is evident.
Fentanyl was involved in approximately 80% of these overdoses.
According to preliminary data from the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United States witnessed a significant rise in drug overdose deaths.
The estimated number of drug overdose fatalities during the 12-month period ending in April 2021 reached approximately 100,306, marking a worrisome 28.5% surge compared to the 78,056 deaths recorded during the corresponding period in the previous year.
Given the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s classification of Tranq as “the deadliest drug threat” in the U.S., Vasan announced that Xylazine test strips might also be stocked in the vending machines to help users identify the presence of this dangerous substance in their drugs.
While NYC is the latest city to implement this initiative, similar vending machines have been installed in Philadelphia, Nevada, Australia, and Denmark.
According to Vasan, the response to the opioid crisis needs to be robust and multifaceted.
He stated, “The answer to the opioid crisis is more. More tools, more education, more harm-reduction, more stigma-busting, more treatment. We are up against an ever-growing crisis and we need to get our arms around it, which is what we’re doing here today.”