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To Fight Heroin Overdoses, Ithaca Mayor Proposes Controversial Safe Injection Site

Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick

The United States is struggling to find ways to stem the tide of fast-rising drug overdose deaths, particularly in the wake of a devastating surge in heroin addiction. In Canada and Europe, progressive new ways to combat addiction have proven successful, and now one New York mayor wants to import some of those controversial strategies to the upstate region.

Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick wants to implement the “Vancouver model” of harm reduction, in which safe injection sites are created for intravenous drug users. It’s a novel approach, and one that has proven to be controversial since its announcement in a February 22 press release. That’s when Myrick and the Municipal Drug Policy Committee revealed “The Ithaca Plan: A Public Health and Safety Approach to Drugs and Drug Policy,” which includes a number of measures to combat the heroin epidemic.

In Ithaca, and around North America, heroin is not only cheaper and easier to buy than ever before, it’s also much stronger. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, deaths from opioid overdoses have nearly doubled between 2000 and 2013, when drug overdoses became the leading cause of injury deaths, surpassing both homicides and car accidents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that those numbers continue to rise unabated. In 2014, 47,055 people died from overdoses, with opioids like heroin being involved in 61% of those cases.

“I think we need a comprehensive plan because I think every community does,” Myrick told the Ithaca Journal. “I mean I think the federal government needs a different plan but they’re not doing it, and the state’s not doing it. So we sort of had to do it ourselves. And we did it ourselves not because we’re the heroin capital of America, our problem is no worse than anywhere else, but we do lose people just like you’re seeing everywhere across the country.”

The proposed safe injection site would give heroin and other intravenous drug users a safe place to come and inject drugs under the supervision of nurses. Combined with a new Office of Drug Policy, a 24-hour Crisis Center, new treatment facilities, and other proposals, Myrick hopes to offer addicts new ways to get help.

Anna Marie D’Angelo is the senior media relations officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, which runs the only public safe injection site in North America. She believes the Vancouver model works.

“It’s a harm reduction model. You do reduce the harm that illicit drugs are doing to you, but you’re also connecting the client to care,” D’Angelo said. “It’s just not someplace where you inject, there’s a whole kind of process.”

At these clinics, addicts can be receive medical attention in the event of an overdose, receive information about HIV and Hepatitis C, and be connected to available treatment programs.

Even so, harm reduction methods like needle exchanges and safe injection sites have always been controversial with tough-on-crime politicians and voters. Already, angry Ithaca residents have condemned the plan on social media, and Myrick is trying to change their hearts and minds.

Per the Ithaca Journal, Myrick said:

“What we’re proposing is different, and different is scary. And you don’t want to seem like you’re condoning drug use. So I think even people who oppose this are opposing this with good intentions. They want people to get healthy and they don’t want people using drugs, and neither do I. The only thing I can say to people who oppose it, it’s not enough to be angry about the problem if all you’re going to do is what you did before. If you keep seeing the same problems and proposing the same solutions, then you’ll never make progress. So it’s not enough to get angry, you’ve got to get smart, and you’ve got to be willing to try.”

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