ITHACA, N.Y. — In Vancouver, law enforcement officials have decided to turn a blind eye to drug users at heroin injection facilities despite federal laws. But when California instigated its own state laws regarding the use of marijuana, the Drug Enforcement Agency instigated raids on some facilities.
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Could a newly proposed drug policy, dubbed “The Ithaca Plan,” — which calls for safe injection sites and heroin assisted therapy — raise similar concerns, even if it eventually gets the stamp of approval from state health officials?
“We’re not calling for legalization or decriminalization,” Mayor Svante Myrick said about how Ithaca’s proposals would differ from legalized medical marijuana dispensaries in California and at least 22 other states.
He said Ithaca’s plan is calling for an exemption for doctors to be able to issue heroin to patients and for medical staff or case managers to monitor people injecting drugs.
The idea behind those harm reduction efforts, officials have said, is to ensure people do not fatally overdose on drugs and provide users with resources to get sober or use other social services.
While Myrick acknowledged that it’s possible for the DEA to raid facilities involved in the plan, he’s not convinced that would be likely if The Ithaca Plan receives state approval.
“There are a lot of drugs that doctors can prescribe that would be illegal for other people to have,” he said. “I don’t think the DEA would come in and start raiding hospitals and doctors.”
A recent legal development on the marijuana front could show favor for Myrick’s ambitions for The Ithaca Plan.
The Washington Post reported that the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment to the 2014 government spending bill states that federal funds cannot be used to “prevent such States from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.”
The Washington Post wrote that for some time afterward:
“The Justice Department contended that the amendment only prevents actions against actual states — not against the individuals or businesses that actually carry out marijuana laws. In their interpretation, the bill still allowed them to pursue criminal and civil actions against medical marijuana businesses and the patients who patronized them.”
In October 2015, however, a federal court in California ruled that the DEA’s interpretation of the amendment was incorrect: states can make laws or approve exemptions regarding the legalization of marijuana.
The Ithaca Plan, however, is not quite on the brink of a federal fight yet.
For one thing, local law enforcement has not showed support for the the entirety of The Ithaca Plan since its details were announced Monday.
Ithaca Police Chief John Barber said in an emailed statement, “I think it’s important to look at our overall approach to the societal drug problem and methods for tackling the issue. I firmly support the exploration of a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program for Ithaca, but I am wary of Supervised Injection Sites.”
Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion would give police the option to take low-level drug offenders to mental health counselors and other social service providers as opposed to incarcerating them.
Participants in LEAD can avoid criminal charges and an arrest record as long as they fulfill their commitments under the program, which places them in services for drug treatment, stable housing and job training.
Myrick said, “One of my favorite parts about this is that it can actually stop you from getting a criminal record simply because you use drugs.”
Though law enforcement officials have not show outright rejection of the plan as of Tuesday morning, The Ithaca Plan could suffer a blow without the support of police officials.
For instance, in Vancouver — the only city in North America with supervised heroin injection sites — the facilities have been able to stay open because of cooperation from police.
“We have those who are choosing to use drugs, regardless of the policing,” said Sgt. Randy Fincham of the Vancouver Police Department during a phone interview with the Ithaca Voice. “And we’re asking officers to turn a blind eye to that with the ultimate goal being public safety.”
“It’s taken a number of years to have people accept that,” he added.
An official announcement about The Ithaca Plan will happen at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Tompkins County Public Library, located at 101 E. Green St.
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