Why giving drug users needles, heroin cookers, test strips could save lives

A South Bronx neighborhood of hard-working families is ground zero for the city's drug epidemic. Residents are demanding action and the NYPD has stepped up patrols. With one life lost every 6 hours to a drug overdose, outreach groups are trying a new and controversial approach to saving lives.

They look like vendors at a street fair but they're not selling anything. The 27-gauge hypodermic needles, heroin cookers, and fentanyl test strips are being given away for free to heroin users—paid for by your city, state and federal tax dollars.

Hiawaka Collins, the co-founder Peer Network Outreach, said the program is part of what is called The Opioid Collective, which brings several agencies in the Bronx together.

Sadly, the sight of people overdosing in the streets is a common occurrence. That is why The Opioid Collective also distributes Narcan. The collective set up in a city park right next to a kids ball field. The same spot we showed you littered with needles in the summer and later on patrol with the NYPD's overdose squad.

Collins said they had to bring help where it was most needed. They give out harm-reduction supplies, sandwiches, detox material, and also offer Narcan training and other services.

Harm-reduction syringe exchanges have been successful in reducing the spread of HIV and AIDS. Eddie Morales, an outreach worker, showed us what is in one kit: a drug cooker, one syringe, rubbing alcohol to clean the injection site, a bandage, a towelette, a gauze, and water.

Shamecca Santiago lives steps away from the park with her husband and children. Her block is full of drug dealers and drug users. She has questions about this approach. She said that she and other residents have to deal with the aftermath.

Former police lieutenant Henry Marrero lost his mother and brother to fatal drug overdoses. While some law enforcement experts say you cannot arrest your way out of the problem, Marrero said laws must be enforced. He said that handing out a kit like the one we saw could be considered a misdemeanor.

But New York State has a medical exemption from those laws. With recovery from opioid addiction at  an 80-percent failure rate, the problem is increasingly viewed as a public health crisis.

"New York State has been a national leader in the fight against HIV and AIDS," a spokesperson for the state Department of Health said. "The Department of Health continues to fund multiple syringe exchange programs throughout the state and New York City."

The growing use of often deadly fentanyl in heroin and counterfeit pills is responsible for many overdoses. That is why the collective also distributes fentanyl test strips.

The collective does not use the terms "junkie" or "addict." The preferred reference is "person suffering from substance abuse disorder." Collins said that the time that drug users spend talking to one of the outreach workers is the only time in their day when they're treated with dignity and respect.

Despite Fox 5's numerous emails and calls back and forth over a period of several weeks, the New York City Health Department was not able to provide someone to speak on camera, a statement, or answers to the written questions we submitted.