Ruth Dreifuss, former president of Switzerland and current commissioner of an organization promoting “humane” drug policy, visited some of the region’s most marginalized communities on Wednesday and voiced her support for Mayor Svante Myrick’s ’09 plan to reduce heroin overdoses.
Dreifuss, one of 23 former presidents and activists now working with the Global Commission on Drug Policy, visited a homeless encampment in the forests and fields off of Route 13, Cayuga Correctional Facility in Moravia, a grouping of nine cottages in Newfield designed to provide affordable housing, and the Southern Tier AIDS Program, which provides Ithaca’s needle exchange service.
Over lunch at Madeline’s on the Commons, Dreifuss and Myrick also discussed The Ithaca Plan, a four-pillar proposal introduced in February that aims to reduce heroin deaths in Ithaca.
The plan has attracted national media attention because of its controversial recommendation that Ithaca create supervised injection sites, where drug users can shoot up a small amount of heroin under the watch of medical professionals. Dreifuss lauded the plan, saying Myrick was aiming “to leave nobody behind” and “to find a way, even very original ways, to enter into contact with all the people who are in need.”
“You can always find solutions for 80 percent of the population — that’s quite easy,” Dreifuss said. The 20 percent “who are not integrated,” she added, “these are the people you have the duty to find original pragmatic ways to enter into contact with them and to bring them the services they need.”
Myrick said he was “thrilled” to meet Dreifuss six months ago, especially given that the approach he wants to bring to Ithaca was “first pioneered” in Switzerland.
“If the United States had done what Switzerland did 20 years ago, we would have two thirds fewer overdose deaths in America today,” Myrick said. “If we had followed Switzerland’s lead, there would have been 5,000 fewer funerals last year.”
Dreifuss said Wednesday was “a very dense day” as she traveled from a prison to the homeless encampment known as “the jungle,” and then to the Southern Tier AIDS Program.
She said was particularly impressed by an employee at the Southern Tier AIDS Program who had previously been addicted himself. People who have personally been affected by drugs, Dreifuss said, are the city’s best allies in reducing heroin deaths.
In her experience in Switzerland, Dreifuss said, “the people directly concerned were our best teachers.”
“I know nothing or not a lot about drugs,” she continued. “I know nothing or not a lot about sex work. But I can tell you what I learned through the people who are consuming drugs, what I learned the people who are sex workers, what I learned through the first gay organization fighting against AIDS … because they knew a lot.”
Addicts and drug consumers, Dreifuss said, must have access to services at the street level, because many people will not make the decision to go to a hospital or to an office for help.
Instead, she said, aid workers and others must come to them. Dreifuss said there are lawyers in Denmark who ride around Copenhagen’s streets on bicycles with coffee, snacks and law books, from which they advise people who “were not able to go to an office of a lawyer, but were able to speak to a street lawyer.”
Of the bicycling lawyers, Myrick said “That’s about the most Ithaca idea I’ve ever heard of,” adding, “I’d be surprised if we don’t have those starting next week.”
The lawyers on bikes, Dreifuss said, is a novel solution, and representative of the out-of-the-box policies that must be implemented to help people who are often forgotten by society.
“Some people will never go to a social service, so they need people who are in the street, at their side, working for them — not in an office, but in the street,” Dreifuss said.
In addition, she said supervised injection sites create safe havens for drug users “where they can never be harassed by the police, not harassed by the dealer, places where they can just sit down and rest” and “consume [drugs] in a safe way.”
Myrick said innovative and cavalier approaches are necessary in Ithaca, because there is not sufficient effort from higher levels of government to create seemingly-radical solutions to the heroin epidemic.
“Now, we are looking for solutions, and we will not find those solutions from the state government,” he said. “We will not find those solutions from the federal government, particularly right now — those answers aren’t coming.”
Dreifuss was optimistic that, in time, Ithaca could spearhead an approach that would win over other cities and state and national legislators. She said the use of “pragmatic” approaches and the creation of pilot programs have the potential “to show to the nation what can be done.”
The Seattle Police Department’s reforms, which emphasize community outreach and focus on entering low-level drug users into treatment instead of jail, are an example of a pilot program that has attracted the attention of other cities, Dreifuss said.
“I’m sure also that the State of New York is quite open,” Dreifuss added. “To find exactly the way is perhaps difficult and this was the reason why I spoke of [Myrick’s] patience. It’s not a passive patience … but you are ready to look and find the allies at the higher level and find the climate of tolerance on the higher level to be able to continue here.”Myrick and the former president of Switzerland met again shortly after the evening press conference for dinner at Gola Osteria in Ithaca, ending Dreifuss’ visit to Ithaca.
Dreifuss congratulated Myrick for his work so far, saying she was sure he would be able to “convince your population to go further,” and that she hoped for the eventual support of the state and federal government.