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Ithaca, New York, would be the first in the U.S. to offer a supervised space where addicts could inject heroin, under a plan unveiled today by Mayor Svante Myrick. The sites would be staffed by trained medical professionals who could respond to overdoses.
The site, similar to those in Europe and Canada, would be part of a comprehensive approach to fighting drug addiction.
Mayor Svante joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to talk about his proposal, “The Ithaca Plan: A Public Health and Safety Approach to Drugs and Drug Policy.” The measure is personal for Svante, whose father is an addict.
Describe the place you envision.
“What we’re envisioning is a fairly small, discreet place, somewhere that fits into the fabric of the city. Something you would never know was there, unless you were looking for it. Look, 125 people are going to die today from heroin overdoses in this country – 125 people. Every single death is avoidable. There’s nobody that needs to die from heroin use.”
Explain the thinking behind inviting users in to inject.
“The thinking is this: treatment is the goal. We want everyone to get better, but when someone dies from an overdose, the 125 people that will die today from heroin overdose, will never get better. They’ll never get that treatment. So if treatment is our goal, we have to keep people alive until we can get them the medicated treatment, the detox, rehab and counseling that they need to actually get healthy. If they’re shooting up in gas station bathrooms and on the streets or huddled behind dumpsters, they’re never going to get those resources because they’re never going to have access to medical professionals.”
This facility is modeled after others in Vancouver, British Columbia and ones in Europe.
“Yes, here’s what they found in Vancouver, 2 million injections. This has been running for 10 years and they have not had a single overdose death. Not a single overdose death. Many of the people who come in there are able to access the treatment that makes them healthier, and eventually helps them get clean. People worry that somehow this will be encouraging people to use heroin, as if someone who wasn’t already using drugs would say ‘you know what, there’s a safe space, maybe I’ll go try it out.’ That has not happened in Vancouver. It’s never happened in Vancouver.”
The facility in Vancouver reports over 800 injections a day and around 10 to 20 overdoses, but no deaths.
“I think, you know especially when people are shooting up and they’re people we are related to, our friends, when they do it in public places, they are rushed, they move faster than they would otherwise because they are worried about getting caught. Often they overdose and they can lay there for hours before somebody finds them. Those deaths can all be avoided, every single one of them. Every time you avoid that death, you give that person a chance to recover from their addiction, and if we can do that in a safe place, all the better.”
These people bring in their own heroin, they are not buying it at the facility.
“Yes, that’s right. There are staff on site and all they do is monitor. They can offer clean needles, they offer clean supplies so that you don’t have HIV transmission, and you don’t have Hep-A, B, or C transmission, and if somebody overdoses then they step in and help them out. In the moments after they shoot up, they also offer counseling services. They also offer medicated treatment. They’re able to say to folks that before they get their fix are so deep in withdrawal that they’re not willing to consider getting clean, but after their fix is a great moment for intervention where you can say ‘do you want to live this life, or do you want the help that we can offer?’”
What about the concern that the clinic could attract heroin users from around the area?
“This has never proven to be true with harm-reduction strategies. This is what people thought when we said ‘look, we need to teach teenagers how condoms work. We need to teach them about safe sex.’ Everyone thought, if you teach them about condoms, you’ll encourage them to have sex. Well, that’s not the case. The kids who weren’t going to have sex didn’t have sex just because they understood condoms, and the kids that were going to have sex were able to have safer sex. We now have lower teen pregnancy rates across the country because we adopted these harm-reduction models. The same thing happened with syringe exchanges. We thought that any community that begins handing out clean needles, addicts are going to come from around the country to those communities. Never happened, because that is not what motivates those who are facing addiction.”
Are instances of overdoses in Ithaca caused by people in the town, or college students?
“We are seeing that this epidemic crosses all boundaries. It is students at the university, students at the colleges, working professionals, middle class folks, rich folks, poor folks; it’s all over. We are not the heroin capital of America. We do not have a worse problem than any other community. We have the same problem that every single community has and it’s just enough. One overdose is too many. One parent asking themselves what they could have done, what they should have done, is too many.”
Are you worried about the legal problems?
“I am. What we’re proposing is not currently legal, which freaks people out, but what we’re proposing is to change the law. The law has not worked to keep our people safe, it has not worked to keep our people clean, so we’ve got to try something else.”
You know addiction firsthand, from your own family?
“I do. My father was a – is an addict. Heroin was never his drug, but I learned at the age of 5 years old what addiction was, what it meant and the toll it can have on a family. It just tore us apart, and the system failed him and it failed our family and I thought that was unique to us, but – I was elected to the city council when I was 20 years old, I was still a junior at Cornell University. I got elected mayor when I was 24. I’ve been in elected office for nine years now. I now lead a system and I’ve watched that system fail people, every day, in the same way that the system failed my family. I realized that this is not working, this is not working and it’s inacceptable. I can’t read another editorial or op-ed from a newspaper saying ‘we’ve gotta do something about this problem,’ but never actually doing anything about it. This is something we can do. This will save lives. This will give addicts another day and another chance to get clean.”