ITHACA, NY – The Ithaca Plan, a proposal that would revolutionize the way that the city deals with drug abuse is full of bold ideas, many of them controversial and polarizing. However, the Ithaca Plan is for now, just that: a plan.

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Turning a set of over twenty recommendations compiled over the past two years by the Municipal Drug Task Force into an actual comprehensive policy will take a tremendous amount work, political will and time.

Mayor Svante Myrick is measuring the overall timeline for the project in years.

“My goal is this: ten years from now we won’t have a single overdose death in Ithaca. That people who are currently using or misusing drugs will have more opportunities to recover, and people who are addicted to drugs will have better shots of living lives of dignity, purpose and satisfaction.” Myrick said.

Smaller individual elements of the plan are on different timeframes. Myrick says the first priority is to establish an Office of Drug Policy for the city, a proposal which he estimates will be brought before Common Council in the coming months.

Projects that require construction, like the proposed 24-hour Crisis Center will take years by their very nature due to the multi-step process of finding a site, getting the necessary approval, hiring staff and so on.

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“This is a plan. It’s not an edict.”

Myrick admits that its possible that some of the recommendations produced by the task force may never come to fruition.

“This is a plan, it’s not an edict,” Myrick said. “It doesn’t just come down from on high and say this will all happen on Thursday.”

For the more controversial — and for now, illegal — measures like safe injection sites and heroin assisted therapy, the city will need to lobby legislators in Albany and possibly Washington, D.C. to get the approval.

For that, Myrick says, community members who believe in those solution will need to mobilized to build a convincing campaign for legislators. The Office of Drug Policy will also play a role in organizing and lobbying for the more “forward thinking” parts of the plan.

There are clearly a lot of walls to climb to turn The Ithaca Plan into policy. Is the plan too optimistic?

“It seems impossible because it doesn’t exist now, right?” Myrick says. “Until it gets placed in front of the legislators, many of whom will now have had nephews or nieces or brothers and sisters who have struggled with opiate addiction and all of whom will have millions of constituents who have struggled or had members of their family struggle… I think we might be surprised. I think we might see the country is ready for a solution like this.”

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Who gets the bill?

Many critics have already raised the question of who is going to pay for all these new personnel, services and facilities.

Funding will need to come from a variety of sources, according to Myrick, as is the case with almost any big project in a municipality. For example, the Commons reconstruction used not just money from the city, but also federal, state and private dollars.

Myrick believes that The Ithaca Plan will draw private funding from groups on both the local and national level who agree with the stance that the war on drugs is not working, and something new needs to be tried.

Unanswered questions

There are a lot of questions that simply don’t have concrete answers at this point.

What exactly will the Office of Drug Policy’s structure and responsibilities be? How will the different elements of the plan be prioritized? How will the city handle issues of liability for the more controversial programs?

These are questions that Myrick says will need to be hammered out over time. That’s one of the big reasons the formulating the Office of Drug Policy is the first priority — it will be instrumental in tackling the rest of those questions.

Myrick says that even the plans for the Office of Drug Policy are intentionally somewhat loose. Filling in the details will ultimately fall to the Common Council, who he says need the flexibility to work out the best possible plan.

This tentative approach may be unsatisfying for some, but Myrick argues that the current situation is already an unsatisfying, unconscionable one.

“Our worst fears have already come true. We have people overdosing in gas station bathrooms, leaving used needles on playgrounds,” he said. “We have to try something.”

“What we’re doing now isn’t working”

The almost two-year process of putting together The Ithaca Plan was not without its disagreements. “This is Ithaca! You get five people in a room and you’ll get nine different opinions,” Myrick said.

But despite occasional disagreements over specifics of the plan, one sentiment was unanimous, according to Myrick: “What we’re doing now isn’t working. We have to try something else.”

More than anything, this seems to be the throughline of The Ithaca Plan: it may be incomplete, some may call it radical, impractical or irresponsible — but it’s a proactive alternative to a system that Myrick and the rest of the task force believe is fundamentally a failure.

“This isn’t just window dressing. This isn’t us just saying ‘We’ve got to do something about heroin, so we’re going to increasing enforcement budget by five percent.’ This is a whole new system.”

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.