In a statement released on Ulster County legislature stationery on February 4, county legislative minority leader Kevin Roberts (R-Plattekill) and legislator Joseph Maloney (D-Saugerties) called for the immediate termination of Ulster County’s contract with the addiction recovery non-profit organization known as the Samadhi Center.
“The litany of concerns, including overdoses, widespread drug and alcohol use around facilities, and escalating calls for police and medical assistance, leaves no room for negotiation,” Maloney said in the statement. “The era of squandering hard-earned county tax dollars on questionable practices, such as supplying snorting kits, crack pipes and essentially helping those most vulnerable use rather than get clean, ends now. The blood on our hands from this misguided approach must cease immediately.”
Samadhi, a non-profit dedicated to addiction recovery, operates an outpatient clinic out of a county-owned building next to the city hall in Kingston. It also occupies space at 451 Washington Avenue and 150 Sawkill Road in the Town of Ulster.
David McNamara, executive director of Samadhi, takes issue with the legislative broadside. He contends the allegations in the statement unfairly emphasize or misrepresent elements of the Samadhi operation.
“So 451 Washington is a emergency housing facility,” says McNamara. “We take people literally from the Elmendorf Bridge and we get them housing. And yeah, some of them are actively drinking. Those things are not allowed in our building, and they all sign a release when they come in saying they won’t do it. But of course, you know, when you’re in the throes of addiction…”
McNamara lets the sentence trail off before he notes that the property has to follow the same rules as motels. His staff can’t search people’s rooms, and they can’t drug-test people. A private grant allows Samadhi to provide mental-health services 40 hours a week at the property. Nine certified recovery peer advocates are at the property 24 hours, seven days a week, he says.
Keeping people alive
“We’ve got acupuncture and massage from volunteers. If you look at that versus going to the Rodeway [sic], or the Wenton, where many people die…. Darmstadt had three fatal overdoses in 2021…. They try to make believe that no one’s using drugs. They’re also overdosing at McDonald’s, Burger King and Stewart’s, basically any public restroom in Ulster County. The only difference between us and motels and all these other places is that if you overdose in Burger King bathroom, you’re gonna die. No one has ever died in any Samadhi facility.”
Perhaps the most lurid allegation in the statement is that Samadhi workers supply drug-use equipment to those suffering with addiction. This McNamara does not deny.
“We actually have people that go out into the street,” says McNamara, “like under the Elmendorf Bridge, for instance. Right now we go there every day, twice a day. And we bring people food, clean needles.”
Workers may also provide users with snorting kits uncannily reminiscent of children’s make-believe toy sets. The kit includes plastic razors for chopping and setting out lines, plastic straws for snorting. Crack pipes are also available upon request.
Hepatitis C can be passed by sharing straws or rolled paper, and also by sharing stems or pipes for smoking, or injection drug-use equipment.
“What’s the point of a crack pipe?” legislator Maloney scoffs. “So we’re not burning people’s lips?”
Proponents of harm reduction are well aware of the reaction engendered by the optics. The strategy invites disbelief and mockery from drug-free members of the public wary of enabling the self-destructive behavior of addicts.
“So the federal government and the state government send us those kits, they’re called Safe Use kits,” says McNamara. “I think part of what’s happening here is a misunderstanding of harm reduction.”
Harm reduction works
According to McNamara, harm reduction has the highest rate of evidence-based positive results out of any treatment regimen.
“Which is why the White House adopted it and why Congress adopted it and why the New York state senators adopted it. Because it works. It saves lives. The reality is that people cannot recover if they’re dead.”
Samadhi has similarly drawn fire for recommending a telephone number for drug users to call before they inject. The toll-free number, Never Use Alone, is a national overdose prevention, detection and life-saving crisis response and medical intervention service for people who use drugs while alone. The service is recommended by New York’s Office of Addiction Services and Supports, which is on board with harm reduction.
While it may sound absurd, harm reduction strategies that involve supplying drug users with the tools to abuse their drugs more safely has been embraced even at the sheriff’s office, which provides a free vending machine outside the county jail to supply the overdose reversal drug Narcan and packages of test strips which detect the presence of xylamine or fentanyl — both popular additives to a slew of recreational street drugs and the major culprits behind overdoses nationally.
“I work very closely with the Department of Mental Health and very closely with the sheriff’s department,” asserts McNamara. “We’re not hiding in the shadows. We’re just really helping people.”
Superficially at least, the legislators’ allegations lack some of the promised potency.
Where the money comes from
But there still remains the question of funding.
Samadhi responded to a county request for proposals (RFP) “to fill critical gaps in the Ulster County behavioral health continuum of care” focused on prevention, harm reduction, treatment, recovery and technology. The addiction recovery non-profit organization was slated to receive $797,000 in 2023
Legislator Kevin Roberts is keen to see where the money spent so far is going. If Samadhi wishes to spend the funds awarded by the county, he says, it must submit invoices. Some $203,000 has been spent on payroll so far, and another $10,000 on a lease with the county for the Broadway property where Samadhi runs its recovery community outreach center.
“I don’t think that their approach is the best approach out there,” says Roberts. “Is there a better place out there that we could be spending our money to help our youth recover from this opioid epidemic? I’d rather do a financial audit at this point — their contract has expired — and see if they’re deserving of the money. It’s a good opportunity to see how the money has been spent.”
Ulster County was awarded $7.9 million over 18 years as its share from funds received as part of a 2021 New York State settlement with Johnson & Johnson, one of the major manufacturers and distributors of prescription opioids in the United States. To settle all lawsuits nationally present and future, J&J agreed to pay five billion dollars in total.
The opioid epidemic arose as a consequence of powerfully addictive drugs produced by pharmaceutical companies and pushed by a distribution system of legal drug dealers on an inexperienced public. A portion of the profits from the drug sales now underwrites treatment programs and rehabilitation facilities for the victims the drugs created.
“People are dying out there of heroin overdoses. Families are being destroyed. Let’s get this right,” says Roberts. “The harm reduction program — I don’t know if that’s the right one for Ulster County. Maybe San Francisco.”
Ulster County has signed away the possibility of future litigation. Opioids continue to be prescribed.