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For Used Drug Needles, City Thinks Inside the Box

By Murray Weiss | January 6, 2011 11:16am
A drop box at West 37th Street and Eighth Avenue is part of a city pilot program to protect New Yorkers from dangerous needles.
A drop box at West 37th Street and Eighth Avenue is part of a city pilot program to protect New Yorkers from dangerous needles.
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DNAinfo/Tiphanie Colon-Lamontanaro

By Murray Weiss

DNAinfo Contributing Columnist

Just 100 feet west of Gray’s Papaya at Eighth Avenue and West 37th Street stands a 5-foot tall black metal cabinet bolted to the brick wall with eight half-inch rivets.

"Needles and syringes ONLY please," reads a sign on its exterior. "No garbage."

Looking at the nondescript encasement is to witness a step in the evolution of public policy in the city.

The "Disposal Kiosk," as public health officials call it, is the first of its kind in New York.

Under a new pilot project, the city is providing a secure public bin for drug addicts and other people who use needles to get rid of their used syringes. The goal is to prevent the spread of disease from needles that are passed around or left in trash where they could be re-used or injure someone.

A metal box on West 37th Street allows people to drop off needles.
A metal box on West 37th Street allows people to drop off needles.
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DNAinfo/Tiphanie Colon-Lamontanaro

Two half-empty coffee cups sat on top of drop box this week. There is a flap door across the front that swings down with a pull of the handle, like a mailbox. Needles can then be deposited down a chute.

A few people in down parkas hovered nearby. There was no mistaking that drug abuse and addiction had taken pieces of their lives. They were standing outside a social service agency called Positive Health Project whose mission is "to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and other diseases by providing holistic health and prevention services . . . to people who use drugs or engage in other behaviors that may put them or their loved ones at risk."

But would a drug abuser actually go out of their way to deposit a used needle?

Since the program started last month, nearly 200 needles have been dropped into the bin, city officials say. Another 150 syringes were collected from a second "kiosk" placed outside of 226 E. 144th St. in the Bronx.

"People even with drug abuse problems want to take care of themselves," said Daliah Heller, Assistant Commissioner for the Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Prevention and Treatment at the city Health Department. "They recognize they have a problem and they want to live."

The Big Apple has come a long way.

Back in the day, people barely wanted to discuss AIDS much less tolerate any idea that would help a drug addict.

And forget about the NYPD ever going along with a plan to have syringes deposited into street kiosks. That kind of forward-thinking logic was not possible at the time of rampant crime, crack and a police force with 8,000 fewer cops than there are today. The police preferred to lock up the addicts on charges of littering, loitering, drug suspicions, or all of the above. At one time, that was the city’s solution to drug abuse.

"The city has offered comprehensive services, and syringes are at the front end," Heller explained. "And there has been enormous decline of HIV and spreading of disease through intravenous use."

Until now, drug users had to exchange needles at city hospitals or at various social service facilities.

"Because hospitals, clinics, and syringe exchange programs offer disposal options at restricted days and hours, there may be a need for permanent, publicly sited disposal," a Health Department spokesman said.

Other states are already doing this. In New Mexico, there are public bins for syringes throughout the state. If the 11-month pilot program here is successful, the city is likely to install more cabinets throughout the five boroughs, Heller said.

In a city where thousands of workers could not remove snow last week, it is encouraging to know that there are still initiatives helping change lives. Even if they include little more than a metal cabinet bolted to a Midtown wall across from the "Happy Cleaners" clothing and tailoring shop.