ITHACA, N.Y.—Midway through their cross-state trek from New York City to Buffalo, Ryan Thorsen-Carson, Nikki Barva and Emilio Musto of No OD NY stopped Thursday afternoon outside of the Southern Tier AIDS Program to call for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to allow overdose-prevention sites to begin opening.

The group is walking across New York State to draw attention to the fact that it has been almost three full years since Cuomo announced that the state’s Department of Health was designing a pilot program for overdose-prevention sites, then known as safe injection facilities—but such a plan still hasn’t been introduced and the sites remain technically illegal. The strategy has been championed by activists and advocates who argue that removing the stigma from drug use and providing a safe, controlled environment where it can happen would be beneficial and healthier for people struggling with addiction and municipalities at large.

It was also a centerpiece of the Ithaca Plan and a popular talking point for Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick, who has pushed for the sites to be introduced in Ithaca, though they are still illegal. He joined the walkers, along with New York State Assemblymember Anna Kelles, Southern Tier AIDS Program Executive Director John Barry and activist Dino Gorman, who lost his son to an overdose in 2017 as they each demanded that the governor fulfill his campaign promise.

“These are preventable overdoses, and they’re preventable deaths,” said Thorsen-Carson, who was the only one of the walkers to address the crowd. He said that he, Barva and Musto had all been in Binghamton earlier this week and had been able to persuade Cuomo’s deputy special counsel to schedule a meeting within 48 hours—a deadline that has since come and gone without a meeting. “This broken promise is very, very personal for me. After my best friend died, I started going to a support group with another friend. Eventually, he also died of a fentanyl-laced overdose. […] The governor’s failed promise means that, I think, because there wasn’t an overdose-prevention center, which was already promised in New York City, that my friend died.”

His remarks were followed by Myrick and Kelles. Both used the opportunity to call on Cuomo to allow the facilities and spoke about the positive impact they would have on widespread issues connected to drug addiction.

“These centers also have a great deal of auxiliary benefits,” Myrick said. “There’s less crime around them, people who go to these overdose prevention centers have been proven to be more likely to enter and successfully complete rehab. People who go to overdose prevention centers are also less likely to contract infections, those infections that end up being extremely costly as people are in and out of emergency rooms.”

Myrick said the new tactic is “common sense,” and that “what makes good sense will eventually make good politics.”

“There’s a relationship that’s built, and an appreciation that it’s helping them save their own lives,” Kelles followed, touting the impacts of allowing people a safe, trusting place for drug use—where, in theory, they can also be shown the availability of resources to deal with addiction if they wish. “It’s not just about creating safety with respect to overdoses and relationship-building. It’s an extension of life. You cannot treat someone if they are dead.”

Dino Gorman spoke next. He admitted to dismissing the value of overdose-prevention centers previously, but his view changed when his son overdosed—Gorman wasn’t aware that his son was using drugs at all.

Dino Gorman (Photo by Matt Butler)

After that experience, Gorman said he gradually educated himself and his notions about drug addiction and overdose prevention shifted. His late son is one of the people pictured on the banner that hangs outside the STAP building on West State Street.

“The people need to be treated like a human being, so that they’re more apt to create that relationship,” Gorman said. “So that they can go forward and get the help that they truly want to seek, but they’re struggling. My message here […] from other parents like me who have lost their children, and for future parents so they don’t lose their children and know the pain that we live with daily: Governor, please move forward and take care of this. Get an overdose-prevention site here and now so that we can prove these work like other states already are doing. So that we can save more lives and provide an opportunity for these people to be treated like a human being, which they are.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com