ALBANY — Standing in front of the Capitol steps, Taner Milazzo recalled three friends who died from overdose and substance abuse disorders within the last week, his eyes filling with tears.
More than 5,100 New Yorkers, and over 90,000 Americans, died from a preventable overdose in 2020 alone — the worst year in recorded history.
Milazzo, a local leader with the Albany chapter of VOCAL-NY, has overdosed a few times.
“Every time, it was because I was using alone, because I didn’t have anywhere safe to go,” he said. “If we had that, we wouldn’t have so many overdose deaths.”
Circumstances would be different, advocates said during a rally on the Capitol steps Tuesday — International Overdose Awareness Day — urging Gov. Kathy Hochul to sign three pieces of legislation in lawmakers’ Overdose Prevention Package passed this spring.
The bills include providing Medication-Assisted Treatment in state prisons and jails to treat incarcerated people going through withdrawal; removing prior authorization for Medication-Assisted Treatment for people on Medicaid; and a measure to decriminalize syringes and remove the limit of syringes people can purchase, which would reverse the state law that puts people at risk of being arrested for having syringes in their possession.
“I can’t tell you how many of my friends have Hep C, AIDS, because we don’t have access to clean syringes,” Milazzo said. “I have Hep C because I don’t have, I didn’t have access to clean syringes when I was using.
“I overdosed a week after I got out of prison because I didn’t have access to the treatment that I needed.”
Dozens of survivors, advocates, lawmakers and local officials gathered in front of a display of hundreds of photos of New Yorkers who lost their lives to overdose, laying carnations dyed black in front of the smiling faces, resting the flowers on the stone crevices.
People gathered Tuesday to hold concurrent rallies in the Bronx, Albany, Rochester and Syracuse throughout the morning.
A New Yorker dies from a preventable overdose every hour and 48 minutes.
“The public at large has looked at this as a criminal justice issue — those days are way in the backseat now, they’re way behind us,” said Assemblymember John McDonald III, D-Cohoes. “This is a health care crisis. These are individuals who have a health care issue. We need to take a comprehensive health care approach.”
McDonald, a pharmacist and member of the Health Committee, encouraged Hochul to prioritize signing the Overdose Prevention Package into law, which he helped to co-sponsor and legislate. Assemblymember Phil Steck, D-Schenectady, also spoke in support of the measures taking effect and preventing additional state overdose deaths.
Advocates criticized former Gov. Andrew Cuomo for not signing the legislation into law and withholding funds in the 2021-22 budget for syringe service program contracts, resulting in staff furloughs and a manufactured syringe shortage that caused HIV clusters and an increase of new hepatitis C infections across the state.
Luke Grandis, a statewide organizer with VOCAL-NY, is in remission from opioid dependency, but struggled to access Medication-Assisted Treatment for years, he said.
“It’s something that we need to make universal, front and center,” Grandis said. “People like me are surviving on life-saving medication that we need to access.”
People in prison and jails statewide are 68% more likely to overdose and die than the average person, and are at an exorbitantly higher risk of overdosing within the first two weeks of incarceration, Grandis said.
“We need overdose prevention centers, if we are going to fight this crisis properly,” he continued, “and with the evidence-based research that we know works, it truly provides the relief that we need from a drug supply that has been poisoned from failure of drug policy.”
Advocates expressed hope Gov. Hochul, who took office one week ago after former Cuomo resigned in disgrace, will prioritize actions to combat the opioid epidemic and prevent avoidable overdose deaths because of her personal experience with the issue.
Hochul’s nephew sustained a hand injury in high school and became addicted to opioids after his doctor prescribed them for the pain. He ultimately died of an overdose.
When Hochul’s nephew went to get support, he was met with roadblocks to get the treatment he needed because of Medicaid paperwork and financial hardship. The governor has spoken out about the need to change that requirement and ease the path to treatment for several years.
“Combatting the opioid epidemic is a top priority for Gov. Hochul, having served as co-chair of the NYS Heroin and Opioid Task Force for years,” Haley Viccaro, Hochul’s senior adviser for communications, said in a statement Tuesday. “She was also personally impacted by the crisis, losing a nephew to addiction several years ago. Gov. Hochul will continue to fight for protections for New Yorkers struggling with substance abuse in partnership with families and impacted groups. The governor is reviewing the legislation and will have more to say on this soon.”
The governor’s office does not comment on pending legislation.
To call the state’s 24/7 substance abuse helpline, dial 1-877-8-HOPENY.