ITHACA, N.Y. — There was one thing that was clear from Thursday night’s heroin forum at the Tompkins County Public Library: Despite an incredible amount of effort from under-sourced agencies, treatment for addicts in Ithaca is “woefully inadequate.”

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The panel brought together five representatives from addiction treatment facilities to discuss options available for those suffering from drug addiction.

The topics ranged from successes within the programs, to failures, to where each program sees the future of addiction recovery going.

Here are five questions answered from the panel discussion:

What treatment options are available in Ithaca for addicts?

1) CARS (according to CEO Bill Rusen)

CARS, at 334 W. State St., offers residential and outpatient treatment services for those seeking treatment for addiction.

Most people hear about the program through word of mouth or are referred to the program through local drug treatment courts.

2) Alcohol & Drug Council of Tompkins County (according to Nicelee F. Hollenback)

This program, located at 201 E. Green St., provides referral services, counseling and information to those seeking treatment for addiction.

3) Ithaca Community Recovery (According to Board President Judy Epstein)

Located in a former church at 518 W. Seneca St., Ithaca Community Recovery refers to a building rather than a program.

Over 60 meetings a week are hosted in the space, including Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

4)Ithaca Health Alliance (According to Administration Coordinator Rob Brown)

Best known for its free clinic for those without health insurance, the facility located at 521 W. Seneca St. offers nine different kinds of treatment options for patients. That includes acupuncture, massage therapy, and mental health therapy, among others.

5) Southern Tier AIDS Program (According to Case Manager Andy Taylor)

Case managers help addicts create a long-term treatment plan. This includes a step-by-step process for navigating treatment facilities while people are trying to get clean, and helping people prepare for a sober lifestyle. It’s located at 314 W. State St.

Is there any one factor that’s a major hurdle to recovery efforts? 

Panelists collectively said stigma is one of the single greatest factors working against not only individuals seeking treatment, but organizations trying to help people get sober.

Russen said “That’s systemic and it undercurrents everything else.”

“I believe that there will come a time when we treat addiction as exactly what it is, which is a public health problem…I always ask people to think about where were we at with AIDS in 1984? Where did we end up about, I don’t know, 15 years later?”

He said it’s important to recognize that changing the way people think about about a problem changes the way people find solutions for one.

For instance, during the AIDS epidemic of the latter 1980s and early 1990s, stigma slowly decreased about who gets the disease and why. This, Rusen said, made it okay in the public’s mind that it was worth funding treatment facilities and research.

The result, he said, has been effective and widely available treatment for those with HIV and AIDS.

“Maybe the heroin epidemic, for our work, is our moment where the stigma begins to melt away,” he said.

In what ways do treatment options or addicts struggle?

Brown said that one of the biggest problems he sees from the medical front is that people cannot afford prescription pain medication.

“When I was a user, the street drugs that I used were a much cheaper option….than anything that I could get medically without health insurance,” Brown said.

Pain, he said, is a big reason why people turn to opioids, get addicted and, in some cases, become addicted to heroin.

Hollenback said it’s the lack of resources and detox options in the area that she struggles with the most in her profession.

“On a daily basis, we are trying to help people find the resources that they need and the wait for these resources can often be several weeks to several months,” she said.

In the mean time, she said people are trying to keep addicts safe and help them with few resources, which led her to one of the biggest struggles she’s faced at her job:

“The first time it came out of my mouth that ‘You’ll have to keep using a whole lot of heroin until we can get you where you need to be’…I sat there and I was like, ‘What just came out of my mouth?’”

What’s the next step here in Ithaca?

One audience who knows people who have directly impacted by the heroin epidemic said, “I think there’s a sense of urgency that other people don’t get…There’s so much talk and so many good intentions but it’s just not happening fast enough for people who are losing people to this disease.”

District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson said that at the end of February, the results of the Municipal Drug Policy Committee will be announced.

Related: Citing rise in overdoses, Mayor Myrick says new drug policy ‘desperately needed’ for Ithaca

The committee, comprised of experts from throughout the community, was started in mid-2014 after a slew of heroin overdoses in the city.

“As an Assistant District Attorney in the 90s, I tried case after case after case of felony drug sales made to undercover cops and I put a lot of people in state prison. And you know what? That didn’t cure their addiction. That didn’t change the problem we have in our society,” she said.

She said the results of committee are focused on steering away from a prosecution model and toward a more “cutting edge” response to social justice.

“It really ought to be as easy to get into treatment as it is to get into jail,” she said.

Featured photo by Jolene Almendarez.

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Jolene Almendarez

Jolene Almendarez is Managing Editor at The Ithaca Voice. She can be reached at jalmendarez@ithacavoice.com; you can learn more about her at the links in the top right of this box.