A week after announcing the controversial Ithaca Plan — a proposal which would establish the nation’s first supervised drug injection facility in Ithaca — Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 outlined the steps the city’s administration will take to make this plan a reality in an interview with The Sun.
Myrick said he advocates this initiative because he believes that current “war on drugs” has been largely ineffective in its reliance on imprisonment rather than rehabilitation.
“I felt for a long time that America’s drug policies were terrible,” Myrick said. “As a child my father was an addict and this cycle of jail, forced rehab, jail, did him and my family no favors.”
Myrick said he formed the Municipal Drug Policy Committee — composed of administrators, healthcare providers and law enforcement officials — in April 2014 to investigate and develop new approaches to combating drug addiction in the Ithaca area.
The blueprint of The Ithaca Plan, which the MDPC and Myrick published last week, includes the group’s findings and policy recommendations.
“[The Ithaca Plan] is a new, smarter public health campaign that will save people lives,” Myrick said. “We are not going to arrest our way out of these problems anymore.”
The component of the Ithaca Plan that has been deemed most controversial is its proposed supervised injection facility, where people would be able to legally inject heroin under supervised medical care. While new to the United States, these operations have successfully prevented overdose deaths, infectious diseases and bacterial infections for heroin users in both Canada and Europe, according to the mayor.
Myrick also defended his program from critics who argue that the initiative would normalize or encourage heroin use by tempering the dangers inherent in abusing the drug.
“People [start using drugs] never imagining that one day they would need to be rescued,” Myrick said. “Nobody, who is fifteen years old and at a party, when someone hands them an oxycontin, says I know I shouldn’t take this, but 12 years from now, I can check into a supervising facility and inject myself with heroin while someone else watches. They take it because they are feeling something, that they rather not be feeling — boredom, isolation, probably anxiety, stress, maybe the beginnings of bipolar disorder or depression.”
He also emphasized that people need assistance rather than deterrents, criticizing the “just say no” approach to the prevention of drug abuse and insisting that those struggling with addiction need “tools, alternatives and treatment.”
Making the Ithaca Plan a reality will be a gradual process, one which will require several years of planning and hard work, according to Myrick.
“We are going to start everything that we are legally allowed to do,” he said. “First we will create the [Ithaca] office of drug policy. After we’ll seek to build a wet shelter, improve our education around drug use, and build a 24 hour crisis center. All of these things will happen in the first three to four years.”
Myrick said he foresees securing a physical location for the supervised injection sites and 24-hour crisis center as the most difficult part of the plan to execute.
“The committee told me this was going to be the largest hurdle, but there are possible locations. There are locations available that are close to services we already provide, like our existing homeless shelters, rescue missions, food pantries and soup kitchens,” he said. “There are also places where neighborhoods have adapted to offering harm reduction services, which is what all of these programs are.”
While many of these programs are being strengthened in Ithaca, Myrick plans to lobby the state legislature for funding of the injection centers, and if that fails, he will appeal to the state department of health, urging them to declare a state of emergency.
“We start building the programs that we can while lobbying with our right hands at the state level,” he said. “If we never get approval for the supervised injection, we’ll still have 95 percent of the plan to fight addiction, all we’ll be lacking is this five percent.”
Myrick said there are several metrics that he will use to analyze the success of the injection center once it is established, including continuing to gauge amount of drug overdoses in the city.
“If we can have no people die [from a drug overdose] then we know we are doing something right, because every single death from drug use is preventable,” Myrick said. “Our goal is to get that number to zero.”
In response to recent concerns voiced by community members that the supervised injection locations might be a target for crime, Myrick countered that most people who would use these shelters are homeless and more vulnerable to crime then they would be in supervised injection facilities.
“This population usually has on them their fix and nothing else. They are not folks who walk around with $10,000 worth of heroin on them, they are walking around with $10 of heroin, which is usually not worth the trouble and doesn’t attract crime,” he said. “It also doesn’t attract dealers for the exact same reason, because these are people without a lot of resources and money.”
The mayor encouraged other cities around the country to consider adopting a similar drug policy plans, calling problems of addiction and rehabilitation both ubiquitous and urgent.
“I don’t know how much longer we can wait,” he said. “We are losing 115 to 125 people a day. People say we should continue the war on drugs, but I say for how long? We have been doing this for 40 years.”
Myrick said he did not aim to be a pioneer in creating the first supervised injection facility in the United States — rather he felt that the city within his jurisdiction was suffering too severely for him to justify continuing with an approach to drug abuse that was simply not working.
“These people are going to die, while you continue to try something which you know doesn’t work,” he said. “So I ran out of patience. We have to stop waiting for the federal and state government, we’ll do it ourselves.”
Adam Bronfin ’18 contributed reporting to this article.