Let People Take Illegal Drugs Under Medical Supervision?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


December 09, 2022

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan. I'm the director of the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine in New York City.

New York City is on the cutting edge with a very controversial program. It has two centers operating as overdose prevention centers, where individuals can come who are using drugs and take heroin or other drugs under the supervision of a healthcare professional or trained person. One is up in Washington Heights in Manhattan; the other, I believe, is over in Harlem.

These two centers will supervise people taking drugs. They have available all of the anti-overdose medications, such as Narcan. If you overdose, they will help you and try to counsel you to get off drugs, but they don't insist that you do so. You can go there, even if you're an addict, and continue to take drugs under supervision. This is called a risk-reduction strategy.

Some people note that there are over 100 centers like this worldwide. They're in Canada, Switzerland, and many other countries, and they seem to work. "Working" means more people seem to come off drugs slowly — not huge numbers, but some — than if you don't do something like this, and death rates from overdose go way down.

By the way, having these centers in place has other benefits. They save money because when someone overdoses out in the community, you have to pay all the costs of the ambulances and emergency rooms, and there are risks to the first responders due to fentanyl or other things. There are fewer syringes littering parks and public places where people shoot up. You have everything controlled when they come into a center, so that's less burden on the community.

It turns out that you have less crime because people just aren't out there harming or robbing other people to get money to get their next fix. The drugs are provided for them. Crime rates in neighborhoods around the world where these centers operate seem to dip. There are many positives.

There are also some negatives. People say it shouldn't be the job of the state to keep people addicted. It's just not the right role. Everything should be aimed at getting people off drugs, maybe including criminal penalties if that's what it takes to get them to stop using.

My own view is that hasn't worked. Implementing tough prison sentences in trying to fight the war on drugs just doesn't seem to work. We had 100,000 deaths last year from drug overdoses. That number has been climbing. We all know that we've got a terrible epidemic of deaths due to drug overdose.

It seems to me that these centers that are involved in risk reduction are a better option for now, until we figure out some interventions that can cut the desire or the drive to use drugs, or antidotes that are effective for months or years, to prevent people from getting high no matter what drugs they take.

I'm going to come out and say that I think the New York experiment has worked. I think it has saved upwards of 600 lives, they estimate, in the past year that would have been overdoses. I think cost-wise, it's effective. [Reductions in] related damages and injuries from syringes being scattered around, and robbery, and so forth, are all to the good. There are even a few people coming off drugs due to counseling, which is a better outcome than we get when they're just out in the streets.

I think other cities want to try this. I know Philadelphia does. I know New York wants to expand its program. The federal government isn't sure, but I think the time has come to try an expansion. I think we've got something that, although far from perfect and I wish we had other tools, this may be the best we've got. In the war on drugs, little victories ought to be reinforced.

I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. Thank you very much for watching.

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