ITHACA, N.Y. — In a stairway located 107 seconds away from Dewitt Park in downtown Ithaca, used heroin needles and condoms littered the secluded steps Monday morning — the same as every morning.
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That — harm reduction experts say — is exactly the kind of thing officials hope to prevent with the radical new measures proposed in The Ithaca Plan — a four pillared approach to combating heroin addiction in Ithaca.
Harm Reduction is the most controversial of the pillars calling for safe supervised injection facilities and heroin assisted therapy — essentially allowing addicts to get free heroin and shoot up in a safe, clean locations.
Officials know this is a radical idea, implemented in only one city in North America — Vancouver.
Lillian Fan, Assistant Director of Prevention Services at the Southern Tier AIDS Program, has worked directly with the local syringe exchange program in Ithaca for about eight years. She said it provides anonymously registered people with clean syringes and access to services such as addiction recovery, health care facilities and housing assistance.
But still, even the syringe exchange program offered at STAP has been the target of outcry from members of the public who say it endorses drug use and criminal behavior.
“How do you get someone to understand that caring about somebody who uses drugs doesn’t mean you’re endorsing their use of drugs but that it means that you’re caring about them as a person?” she asked. “We shouldn’t…watch someone else die from an overdose.”
Mayor Svante Myrick — who founded a drug task force to research the heroin epidemic happening in Ithaca two years ago — is an advocate for both controversial programs.
“We’ve watched a system, I’ve watched a system, continually act as if this is not a disease — the way to treat this was incarceration — and I became the head of a system that continued to treat it that way,” he said. “All this sounds radical but then you realize that the drug war itself is a complete failure.”
The following are two major points of the Harm Reduction pillar proposed:
Heroin Assisted Therapy
In short, heroin assisted therapy allows an addict to get heroin from a doctor and use it under supervision, similar to prescribed medication.
“If you give them the drug it sounds really awful. It sounds enabling, it sounds all of that,” Fan said. “But if that person is going to use anyway, would you rather them use something that was safer or something that they got off the street that could kill them?”
She said the idea here is multi-pronged: It helps eliminate the chance of people dying from an overdose, it helps decrease the cost of treatment for drug related illnesses, and it provides people with direct access to services so they can stop using if they choose to do so.
For instance,while there have been overdoses at the sites, none have been fatal.
And Myrick said there has been only one report of somebody using heroin for the first time at one of the facilities.
He said, “People who wouldn’t otherwise do drugs will not do drugs. Nobody is going to drive past this place and say, ‘Oh, you know what? I’ve got 20 minutes before my next meeting. I’ve always wondered what heroin was like.’”
Fan said the centralized location to use drugs in a safe environment also increases one’s chances of getting help to combat addiction.
She said, for instance, that people who use the needle exchange program have access to case managers who help arrange doctor appointments or meetings with people at the Tompkins County Department of Social Services.
“People know — when they need help — they know where to go. Just the other day we had somebody who literally limped up our stairs and just asked, ‘Can you call me an ambulance? I’m in pain.’ Well, he could have gone anywhere.”
Supervised Heroin Injection Sites
These sites would be a clean place where an addict could use their drug of choice without fear of being arrested, Fan said.
“Supervised injection facilities are operational and successful in 65 cities around the world,” Fan said.
Vancouver, which The Ithaca Plan is strongly modeled after, is the only city in North America that currently has supervised injection sites.
“I think it would be something that the community recognizes would be a benefit,” she said.
For instance, when the syringe exchange program started in Ithaca, there was staunch opposition about it.
But she said, “Ultimately I think everything is rooted in harm reduction. It’s all meant to prevent harmful things from happening to people whether it be the community at large or people who use themselves.”
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