Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 presented The Ithaca Plan — an attempt to address the city’s rampant drug abuse — at a press conference this morning, saying Ithaca is “poised to lead the nation” with the implementation of the country’s first supervised heroin injection site.
Two years ago, Myrick said he formed a municipal drug strategy committee to confront the rising death toll from opioid overdosing. The mayor said the nation’s protracted “War on Drugs” has not only levied heavy financial costs, it has also proven ineffective and has enforced a system of oppression and racism.
“We need a drug policy to make sure that we are responding in a more humane and more equitable way,” he said. “The war on drugs … has failed.”
The most controversial recommendation in The Ithaca Plan is its plan to open a supervised injection facility, where drug users could receive monitored injections of opioids to prevent overdose without fear of arrest.
Despite the controversy this idea has sparked, Myrick said he remains confident in his plan. He compared the radical nature of the policy to public health campaigns to provide sexual education to teenagers in the 1970s and recent needle exchange programs, which he said have led to a reductions in illness and fatalities.
He also pointed out that a similar injection clinic has operated in Vancouver for over 10 years, and even after two million injections he said they have not had one death. The clinic opened as a part of a broader policy restructuring in Vancouver to address the tragic consequences of drug abuse during the late 1990s, according to Myrick.
“Hundreds of people had died needlessly because of our inability to respond,” said Don MacPherson, one of the primary architects of the Vancouver plan and an expert on drug policy.
“Policymakers from across the political spectrum have joined law enforcement leaders to declare that we cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem,” The Ithaca Plan states.
The report also asserts that previous policy approaches to solving drug problems failed to recognize the importance of the “deeper issues related to social and economic opportunity and racial inequality.”
The facility will address the city’s need for a “detox center” where the plan says patients can “chill out.” The center’s founding was also motivated by the overburdening of Cayuga Medical Center and the need for services such as counseling, job training and housing assistance, according to the report.
In addition to the supervised injection sites, the Ithaca Plan proposes the implementation of a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, in which police officers “divert people directly into the social service system” instead of perpetuating the revolving-door system of incarceration for low-level offenses, Myrick said at the press conference.
The mayor said the LEAD pilot program has had success in Seattle, where streets became safer after the plan’s implementation.
“Police officers were more active in Seattle because they knew there was an option to bring people in and get them help,” he said.
After watching the presentation on the program, Ithaca Police Chief John Barber said he is optimistic about the plan’s future in Ithaca.
“I walked away from the presentation feeling renewed that there are other ideas,” he said. “What they’re doing in Seattle is working.”
The Ithaca Plan will also increase city funding for a plethora of other initiatives aimed at reducing drug-related harm – such as opening an office of drug policy, pursuing public health education, and reducing barriers to health care access – according to Myrick.
“We must do better, and to do better we must do something different,” Myrick said.