Ithaca Heroin Plan Stirs Up Controversy

ITHACA, NY – On Feb. 24th, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick announced the Ithaca Plan, a proposal to improve drug treatment and prevention in the city of Ithaca, which has generated much debate.

One of the more controversial parts of the plan suggests that the city open a supervised injection site, a place where a person could go to take heroin in a safe environment. This site would be the first of its kind in the United States, although there are such facilities around the world.

Mayor Myrick believes that large scale proposals such as this site are necessary because of the severity of the drug problem in Ithaca and the surrounding area.

IthacaPlanGraph
Source: Tompkins County Health Department, via the Ithaca Plan

According to the Tompkins County health department, drug-related deaths in Tompkins County have nearly tripled from 2004 to 2014. The number of misdemeanor drug law violation arrests in Tompkins County have risen over 61 percent in the past decade as well, according to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Stewart Auyash, who is an associate professor and chair of the department of health promotion and physical education at Ithaca College, has studied drug use and the war on drugs extensively throughout his career, and agrees with the mayor’s plan.

“Nothing really works,” said Auyash. “I’m an advocate for doing as much as we can, so I like the mayor’s approach of doing as much as he can. I would rather have an ambitious plan and risk things falling through the cracks than have a narrow plan that doesn’t cover enough”

However, not everyone shares this optimistic sentiment. Bill Rusen, the CEO of Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services, has doubts about the proposal.

“The jury is still out on the ethics and usefulness of a safe injection site,” Rusen said. “Too much time and energy is being spent talking about an injection site that hasn’t been proven to work”

There are supervised injection sites around the world that have been effective. In Vancouver for example, the supervised injection site that opened in 2003 has reduced fatal overdoses in the area by 35 percent, according to a 2011 study in The Lancet, a medical journal in the United Kingdom.

“People live longer,” said Mayor Myrick at the press conference on February 24th about the effectiveness of these sites. “More people get clean. More people get treatment.”

However, Rusen also feels that the controversy surrounding the injection site is overshadowing other parts of the plan, such as a detox facility and the implementation of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, also known as LEAD.

“That’s a crying shame,” said Rusen. “If you started a detox facility and implemented the LEAD program, the results a year from now would be great. You could literally start detox tomorrow if the funds were there. Not having detox in this community is like having a hospital without an emergency room.”

It is not certain that any of these proposals will actually come to fruition. Mayor Myrick acknowledged that some elements, such as the supervised injection site, may require federal approval, and that they have yet to start the site selection process.

However, the mayor remains determined to do something, because, as he said at the press conference, “If we continue to do what we’ve done for the last four years, people will continue to die.”