The Ithaca Plan — Mayor Svante Myrick’s ’09 comprehensive plan to reform the city’s drug policy — is two years in the making. Drafted in response to the city’s increased rate of opiate/opioid abuse, the plan draws on knowledge from a cross-functional committee of law enforcement officials, academics and experts on drug recovery programs. Each of the four pillars of Myrick’s policy addresses a different facet of drug abuse in Ithaca: prevention, treatment, law enforcement and harm reduction. The most controversial element of the proposed plan is the final pillar of the policy, which would establish a 24-hour crisis center to ultimately serve as a safer injection facility where heroin users can administer the drug under the supervision of a medical professional.
The inspiration for the Ithaca Plan comes from the success of a similar program in Vancouver, where two supervised injection facilities have been operating for nearly 15 years as safe clinics for drug abusers. The theory behind the harm reduction approach to public health policy rests upon the humane idea that, as a community, we have a responsibility to keep drug abusers alive in order to give them the treatment they deserve. As over 30 published articles have proven, the facilities in Vancouver have been incredibly successful at both preventing overdose deaths and improving public safety.
Myrick’s Ithaca Plan represents a serious departure from our country’s unfortunate intellectual legacy regarding drug abuse and addiction. In 1971, President Richard Nixon initiated the War on Drugs when he declared drug abuse in America to be “public enemy number one.” Since then, the national response to drug policy has been characterized by inefficient measures such as mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders and increased police surveillance in urban areas. Importantly, the effects of policies enacted under the zero-tolerance logic of the War on Drugs have not been evenly distributed throughout society, with the majority of law enforcement efforts concentrated in low-income urban neighborhoods. Many policies rely heavily on racial profiling, like New York City’s “stop and frisk” initiatives that have been consistently shown to target minorities and non-white neighborhoods at a disproportionate level. On a larger scale, both the War on Drugs and the mass incarceration it supports have a disproportionately negative impact on racial minorities, women and LGBT individuals.
Drug policy that compounds the disadvantages that these groups already face is not worth pursuing. Myrick’s proposal is only radical in comparison to the 45 years of misguided drug policy that precede it. It can be difficult to understand such a compassionate and prevention-based policy when the prevailing logic of our criminal justice system has resulted in decades of legislation that treats drug addicts as delinquents instead of as sufferers. In order for Myrick’s policy to succeed on a community level, Ithacans must work towards accepting that drug abuse is a public health issue that cannot be solved with law enforcement tactics alone.
Drawing off the successes of initiatives in Vancouver, the Ithaca Plan challenges us to unlearn everything we have been taught about addiction. Research has proven that addiction is not the result of poor life choices and lack of willpower on an individual level. And while addiction isn’t a lifestyle choice, as the individual punishment-based drug policies of the past decades might have led people to believe, it isn’t necessarily a disease that can be cured by a uniform 12-step procedure. Rather, contemporary science views addiction as a learned experience that is probably better addressed with cognitive behavioral therapy to restructure the brain’s learned habits.
There are no shortcuts toward reducing drug addiction, and even the most comprehensive policy measures will face limitations. The Ithaca Plan is a vital step towards undoing the damage wrought by decades of failed drug policy but it is certainly not without its own shortcomings. The most obvious flaw is the historical context: over the past generation, the demographic of illegal drug users has shifted from inner-city crack cocaine users (most of whom were black) to suburban opiate users (most of whom are white). That the contemporary policy response to drug abuse tends to emphasize treatment cannot be explained in the absence of racial considerations. In fact, the modern approach to drug policy as a public health issue reveals the persistence of racial inequalities in public policy. There were no treatment centers organized in response to the 1980s crack epidemic that devastated so many inner-city communities. When the majority of drug users are disenfranchised, low-income and non-white, policymakers tend toward punishment instead of looking for long-term solutions. The fact that policymakers failed black communities during the crack era does not make today’s heroin epidemic any less critical, but it demands we evaluate the racially asymmetric impacts of public policy on our communities.
Supervised injection facilities do not purport to end drug abuse overnight, nor do they claim to be the best or only way to reduce drug abuse. What they will do, however, is reduce public drug use, prevent overdose deaths and promote treatment instead of criminalization. The Ithaca Plan is not designed to end opiate/opioid abuse once and for all; it is a policy designed to prevent people from overdosing in the streets and to give them the basic medical attention they deserve as members of our community. For Ithaca, harm reduction will likely be just as important as prevention.
Emily Hardin is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Free Lunch appears alternate Mondays this semester.