ITHACA, N.Y. — Tompkins County District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson initially thought details of The Ithaca Plan — which calls for supervised safe injection sites — were “insane.”

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“I was appalled when I first heard about it. My first reaction was ‘You have go to be kidding.’ We’re going to create a safe place for people to go shoot up drugs? That is insane,” she said.

But she knew something about how drug addiction is treated nationally had to change. Wilkinson has been involved in the criminal justice system for about 25 years, meaning she has only ever worked with laws stemming from one idea: The War on Drugs. She said the “war” first started in the early 1970s and focuses on tough prison sentences for drug users and dealers and less funding for addiction recovery services.

Related: The Ithaca Plan Information Hub: detailed coverage of the city’s new drug plan

“We’ve seen 45, 50 years of that and the problem isn’t getting better. So I think if we’re really serious about public safety we have to try something else,” Wilkinson said.

She didn’t know, however, that when she became co-chair of the Municipal Drug Policy Committee — which has gathered hundreds of people from throughout the community to discuss various facets regarding drug addiction and treatment — that she’s come out of it supporting the radical views in The Ithaca Plan.

But Wilkinson said the people she has talked to and the facts she has gathered — specifically about drug treatment in Vancouver, but also in European countries — has changed her mind.

For instance, according to Vancouver’s InSite — one of two legal supervised injection sites in the country — of more than 275,000 annual visits, 20,000 were referred to health or other services in 2008-2009. More than 10,000 of those people were referred to detox facilities.

There has also never been a fatal overdose on drugs at the facilities. Anecdotally, Tompkins County sees several fatal overdoes a year.  In 2014, 47,000 Americans died from a drug overdose, the Baltimore Sun reports. 

“I would say to anybody who says ‘The use of illicit, or legal drugs in a abusive way, does not impact my life,’ I would say, ‘You’re not paying attention. Of course it impacts your life. It’s impacting all of our lives,’” Wilkinson said.

Her first reaction to supervised safe injections sites and heroin maintenance therapy was likely similar to what most people would think about The Ithaca Plan — which she said is the result of the national  ‘War on Drugs’ message people have heard since childhood.

“I think it’s because we have been told for so long that we’re in a war on drugs. I think that label shapes our whole thinking about it and I think it forms the range of acceptable responses. If somebody tells you you’re in a war, you don’t think in terms of doctors and crisis centers…We don’t think of having a community detox as an answer to a war,” Wilkinson said.

She added that the most controversial parts of The Ithaca Plan are small parts of larger solutions being proposed.Among some of the proposed changes are 24-hour crisis center, the creation of an Office of Drug Policy and case managers for users.

“We have to stop thinking in terms of this War on Drugs. There was one and we didn’t win it,” Wilkinson said.

Related: 13 key recommendations of The Ithaca Plan

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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.