Recently Ithaca has come to the attention of major media outlets such as the NY Times, NPR, and the Guardian for a radical proposal – to establish the first “supervised injection facility” in the US, a place where people can go to legally inject heroin under medical supervision.
In recent years, the numbers of heroin users and heroin deaths have increased in Ithaca, as they have in much of upstate NY and the rest of the country. The number of overdoses has generated a tragic public health crisis, inciting the local government to try a more drastic approach in combating drug abuse. Ithaca has always been politically liberal and progressive town, with a focus on drug prevention and treatment rather than criminal punishment. The city has established rehabilitation centers, a well-maintained homeless shelter, and a needle exchange program. However, these programs currently in place have proven to be insufficient to fight the heroin epidemic.
Recently, Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick announced The Ithaca Plan. The comprehensive Plan begins with acknowledging that current and past approaches to tackle drug use are insufficient, and that new perspective is needed:
While new practices are adopted to reduce the negative health and social consequences of drug use, older practices criminalizing drug use remain … Too often, our past approaches have failed to recognize that fundamentally, the community prevalence of health problems, such as problem drug use, and social problems, such as participation in the illegal drug economy, reflect deeper issues related to social and economic opportunity and racial inequality.
The Plan outlines specific aspects of prevention, treatment, and law enforcement that are lacking (affordability of treatment, comprehensive drug education, perceived racial profiling, etc.), and proposes new measures to improve education, treatment, community development, and public safety among other fields. One of the many proposed suggestions is the supervised injection facility.
The goal of such a facility would be to reduce the transmission of blood borne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis by providing clean needles, and to reduce the number of overdoses and overdose deaths, especially in public place such as parking lots and public bathrooms. Nurses and social workers would be present to provide information on treatment and rehabilitation options as well.
Such facilities have existed in Vancouver as well as European countries including Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands with some degrees of success. The NY Times article reports,
In Vancouver, fatal overdoses dropped 35 percent in the community surrounding its main injection site in the two years after it opened in 2003 and fell 9 percent citywide … According to Donald MacPherson, director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, the addicts who have availed themselves of the program are 30 percent more likely to get treatment and other health services than those who do not.
Additionally, I think that Svante Myrick provides the ideal leadership to make this work. First, Myrick enjoys popular support in Ithaca. He is very visible, high energy, and optimistic. People like him and trust him. In the past I’ve written about following him on social media. It’s hard not to like the mayor who posts on Facebook, offering himself and his roommates’ help shoveling residents’ driveways the day after a blizzard. Or the mayor who has an LED sign in his office that in real time transmits text messages from his constituents.
Myrick also has an incredibly inspiring personal story. His father was a crack addict who eventually abandoned his family, and he spent time during his childhood in a homeless shelter. Myrick worked multiple jobs to pay for his college education at Cornell, and at 24 became the youngest elected and first black mayor of Ithaca. He has valuable perspective in understanding the problems Ithaca faces.
There is much opposition to the Plan, especially the supervised injection facility, with the local police chief unable to condone illegal drug use – even under supervision, and one Cornell Law School professor calling it a “government-run heroin shooting gallery.”
I have always believed in and loved Ithaca. Ithacans form an incredibly diverse and supportive community, and I think these qualities will are important for the success of any programs to combat drug abuse. I hope that The Ithaca Plan comes to fruition and that it can serve as an example to the rest of this country.