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New York’s Conflict Over Needles Is a Fight About What a City Is For

Economic elites and their press organs are up in arms over the decriminalization of syringe possession in New York. Beneath their reactionary bluster about “junkies” lies a stronger belief: that the purpose of a city is to provide investment opportunities for capital.

Representatives from New York’s most profitable industries believe the city should be merely an investment opportunity for capital — and that’s why they object to the decriminalization of syringe possession. (lyd_f / Flickr)

“New York City’s war on drugs is over. The junkies won.”

It’s a properly reactionary sentence from the reliably reactionary New York Post, followed by over a thousand words of fearmongering about New York State’s recent decision to decriminalize the possession of syringes. The article prophesies a bleak future for New York City, with addicts free to shoot up openly in the streets and run wild endangering law-abiding citizens.

Of course, the science of addiction and recovery paints a different picture. Decriminalization and syringe services programs (SSPs) not only drastically reduce the transmission of blood-borne diseases like HIV and hepatitis but also have been shown to lower rates of overdose and addiction by directing people to drug counseling and other social services. New York’s decision is in line with this body of research and represents a step toward reducing, rather than increasing, the prevalence of addiction and substance abuse.

That the New York Post would directly contradict the findings of the CDC while stoking fears about out-of-control progressives hastening civilizational decline isn’t particularly surprising. The tabloid has long been the reactionary mouthpiece of New York’s economic elites, its primary purpose being to wrap their perspective in salacious culture-war packaging and peddle it to the masses.

What’s interesting is why the city’s economic elites are so opposed to syringe decriminalization, and what it says about the real debate churning beneath the usual partisan bluster of urban politics.

That debate is over the basic purpose of cities. Are cities meant to provide housing, employment, and social infrastructure to those who live in them, or are they meant to be an investment opportunity for capital? Representatives from New York’s most profitable industries take the latter position — and that’s precisely why they object to the decriminalization of syringe possession.

The Post quotes six people on the passage of the syringe decriminalization bill, S2523. One of them is S2523’s sponsor in Albany, state senator Gustavo Rivera. The other five are all people speaking out in opposition to the new ordinance.

Two of the bill’s opponents quoted in the Post article are Republicans, one a lawmaker and the other a party official. It’s hardly surprising to see Republicans ranting about “junkies” in the Post — what else is new? The article also quotes an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, but neglects to mention that he was previously a detective sergeant in the New York Police Department, who has written fearmongering op-eds and provided alarmist quotes in the Post on a number of occasions. (It’s perhaps worth noting that other former members of the department, such as one who went on to oversee a major reduction in overdoses elsewhere, feel differently about the bill).

Also quoted is Luke Nasta, CEO of Camelot Counseling, which has operated in Staten Island for fifty years. Nasta is an ambassador from the recovery industry, which is poorly regulated and highly uneven, with some facilities relying on outdated models of addiction treatment administered by staff with very little training. Nasta may be self-interested, or he may be simply wrong; in any case, contrary to his statement that “the more permissive we get as a society the harder it is for people struggling to rehabilitate,” the research shows that having to show up in court, pay fines and legal fees, and face possible jail time does not help people rehabilitate, and that being arrested for carrying syringes is correlated with an increase in a person’s risk for overdose.

But it’s the choice of the last two people quoted in the Post article that is the most revealing: William Abramson, a real estate executive, and Barbara Blair, the president of the Garment District Alliance. The Post didn’t think to ask any harm reduction experts or interview someone who works at an SSP, but they were interested in the thoughts of a real estate executive and a local chamber of commerce president. What do property and business owners know about addiction treatment? Not much, but they do know that they don’t want any junkies around their property, obstructing retail foot traffic and suppressing property values.

Contrary to what the Post would have you believe, S2523 was not a careless appeasement of radical liberals seeking an overly permissive society. It was the ultimate product of a 2015 state government task force on ending the AIDS epidemic, and its express purpose is to clear unnecessary obstacles facing the twelve statewide SSP programs already funded by the New York State Department of Health. This task force included community leaders, social workers, and academics, as well as experts in psychology, chemical dependency, AIDS transmission, criminal justice, and a whole host of others with experience and knowledge in the area — none of whom were interviewed by the Post.

But they did interview Blair and Abramson, not because they have any relevant expertise in opioid addiction or infectious disease transmission but because they represent the concept of the city as a vehicle for capital investment. Their concern is not the health of the people who inhabit the city but rather the appreciation of their assets. Barbara Blair gives up the game when she tells the Post:

Mentally and emotionally ill individuals should be removed from the streets, involuntarily if necessary. They should be placed in high-quality settings, institutional settings if necessary, where they get the shelter, food, and care they need. Having drug addicts, a frightful condition, freely injecting drugs and passing out in public is not tenable.

Those concerned with public health can take some solace in the fact that Blair believes wherever we stash people battling addiction and mental health issues should be “high-quality,” but it’s clear that her first concern is removing them from her line of sight.

Removing them from sight is what the police do, and the criminalization of needle possession is one major way they accomplish this task. Criminalization of drug paraphernalia is a tool the police use to clear the detritus of capital accumulation, which in turn makes more capital accumulation possible. Retaining this tool is the only reason the city’s economic elites are interested in and moved to opine on the topic at all.

The criminalization of syringes does nothing either to help people battling with addiction or to move drug use off the street (safe injection sites would do both). What it does is give police another reason for detaining and arresting people who do not belong in front of William Abramson’s buildings and around the shops in the Garment District, and whose presence diminishes profits.

A great deal of highly charged law-and-order discourse is driven by property values, even if publications like the Post obscure this rationale. Research shows that policing intensifies in urban areas as a result of gentrification, and policing is sometimes openly sold as a capital-accumulating investment. Meanwhile, the science and research providing more efficient and cost-effective ways of reducing crime and other social ills are usually ignored. Bill S2523 in New York represents a small step in the right direction, toward centering public health over the prerogatives of capital.

S2523 gained further legitimacy in 2019 when a New York Senate joint task force of Democrats and Republicans charged with reducing opioid addiction and overdoses recommended its passage. The task force held hearings and roundtables all over the state. Luke Nasta was a speaker at the Staten Island roundtable. He had a prime platform to address members of the New York Senate on his concerns about the deterioration of society, and presumably his arguments were left wanting. The “junkies” won. And we are all better off for it.