ITHACA, NY – It will fall to local lawmakers to determine if, when and how the lofty recommendations of Ithaca’s proposed new drug policy are implemented.

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For this article, we spoke to three members of Ithaca’s Common Council: Cynthia Brock and George McGonigal, who represent the 1st Ward, and Seph Murtagh who represents the 2nd Ward. We also spoke with two Tompkins legislators: Mike Sigler, who represents Lansing, and Anna Kelles, who represents Fall Creek.

Here are the key takeaways from our talks with them:

1 – Starting a conversation

There was one thing that all five officials we spoke to agreed on — regardless of the specifics, The Ithaca Plan was commendable for starting a conversation about drug addiction in the city and beyond.

“I do appreciate the mayor’s shining a spotlight on some of the conditions that we’re facing in Tompkins,” said Alderperson Cynthia Brock. “I don’t think it’s something, in general, that our community has been paying as much attention to as was warranted. I applaud what he’s trying to accomplish. We need to make movement in this direction or we’ll continue to see this spiral of addiction and devastation on families that are affected by addiction.”

Alderperson Murtagh said that the heroin epidemic was an issue that he hears about often from his constituents, and one he felt he hasn’t been able to provide a satisfying answer for.

“It’s a disappointing thing to have to tell constituents who have family members struggling with addiction or families that are finding drug paraphernalia in a park, that you don’t know what to do,” Murtagh said. “For me it’s exciting that we have this plan now, that we can say we have a path forward, that this could be a potential solution to get at a lot of these problems.”

Asked if heroin had played a role in the crime problems in West Hill, which he represents, Alderperson McGonigal responded with “a capital ‘Y’ yes.”

“I’m not a naysayer in this. I have concerns, but I think this is a good thing, we need to do this,” said McGonigal.

Legislator Sigler said, “It’s good that we’re talking about it. No sense pretending there’s not a problem… At the very least it’s opened a door to that conversation.”

2 – Putting a human face on drug addiction

Another common sentiment from those we spoke with is that it’s important that we, as a community, recognize and remember that drug addicts are human beings.

Legislator Sigler said that he attended the panel at Cinemapolis the night prior to the unveiling of the plan. At the event was a young man, an addict who said that he had overdosed on heroin that same morning.

Sigler spoke to the man afterward to learn what had started him down that path. Oxycodone was the answer. Sigler said he didn’t know the specifics of the man’s situation — whether it was prescribed or being used recreatioally — but noted that in both cases people can be “taken over” by the drug.

“Are those people bad people? No. They’re people you know, people walking around that you’re friends with. They don’t deserve to die because of this. You want them to get help and for them to be successful, and not to get taken over by this drug,” Sigler concluded.

Legislator Kelles said, “We can’t get fatalistic about this. That’s what we tend to do when we feel like oftentimes people who do drugs are ‘the other,’ that they’re somehow broken… I hope the conversation can help shift the culture and people’s beliefs about drug addicts and who they are, because they are us. We can’t marginalize people just because we categorize them as drug users.”

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 3 – Injection site controversy misses the point

Headlines covering The Ithaca Plan are almost all some variation of “Ithaca Mayor wants to provide safe places for people to inject heroin.”

While that element of the Ithaca Plan has dominated the conversation, and Mayor Myrick has made it clear it’s not something he’ll back down on, it is just one of over twenty recommendations in the plan.

“It’s the most radical, because it’s never been done before in the United States. I understand why its getting all the attention,” said Murtagh. “There are serious legal and political obstacles to getting this done, on a state and federal level. Of all the parts of the plan, that’s the one that — if it happens — is going to take the longest to implement.”

“95 percent of the rest of the ideas in the plan are ideas that are much less controversial and the community supports and are important, maybe even more important than injection sites, like getting methadone clinic downtown,” he added.

Brock and McGonigal both had similar sentiments about the likelihood and timeline of injection sites.

“I think there are many elements of his plan that are worthy of support and moving forward, I think there are some elements that even [the mayor] admits may not happen, and if they do happen, will only come after many years of lobbying,” Brock said. “Instead of being distracted by what is unlikely to occur, I think it’s good to spend some time looking at what can be done if we have the time and resources to make it happen.”

Legislator Kelles said, “I like that it’s stimulating the conversation, but I’m disappointed that it’s overshadowing things like the comprehensive training of our police force and building bridges between law enforcement and health and mental health communities.”

“That’s the thing about a comprehemensive plan: you can start with the less controversial parts. Then you build rapport, you build data, you build infrastructure, you build community support and you add to it… It’s not an all or nothing,” she added.

Murtagh had a somewhat brighter take on the issue, saying that the shock value of the injection sites helped to spur the conversation forward.

“I think the impression has been created that we’re somehow going to create these sites tomorrow. That’s just not the case,” he said. “I think the reality is that the furor over injection sites will die down, and our local community, working together — hopefully with support from the state and federal government — will do the hard work of moving this plan forward, because it’s important work that needs to be done.”

4 – Medicated detox a top priority

When it came the other parts of the plan that most stood out, medicated therapies like methadone and suboxone were most commonly mentioned.

“From what was said at the panel, methadone and suboxone are the most proven successful way to deal with opiate addictions. To my mind, getting access to both those things locally is top priority,” said Alderperson McGonigal.

Murtagh noted that as of now, people are having to drive an hour to Syracuse if they want to get methadone treatment.

Alderperson Brock said that detox facility should be a primary focus for the city.

“I think it’s defintiely something that could bridge the gap, provide the assistance, the safety net that people need to keep it together on the road to recovery — and it wouldn’t have the kinds of barriers that some other elements do,” she said.

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5 – Major hurdles: legal, financial, implementation

While the sentiment toward The Ithaca Plan was generally positive, there were certainly concerns expressed.

Legislator Sigler said he had some concerns about the “normalization” of drug use. Sigler used smoking as an example, saying that he grew up in a culture where smoking cigarettes was prevalent, but it’s been so marginalized now that when his daughter sees someone smoking, it strikes her as strange.

“If you normalize something, more people are more comfortable with it,” he said. “But maybe the culture’s already moved toward that, with shows like Breaking Bad and Orange is the New Black are so popular, that behavior is not only normalized but glamorized.”

Sigler also recognized the other side of that issue, saying, ” Is someone going to walk by [an injection facility] and say ‘Oh yeah, those people are shooting up under nurse supervision. That’s the life for me!’ I have to imagine that if you get to that point, this is no longer recreational for you, this is maintenance.”

Culture issues aside, Sigler said the legal hurdles to such a plan would be enormous, regardless. Even if state and federal approval could be obtained, Sigler expressed concerns about liability and noted that we live in a more legalistic society than some of the others where this sort of treatment has been tried.

“I think they’re going to need someone with a lot of money to get behind this. I can’t imagine they’re gonna go to Lloyds of London and say we need insurance for this program,” he said.

He also presented another scenario: “You could get sued by family saying, ‘Hey you’re supporting my family members drug use, we’re going to sue you to stop that.’”

Beyond the legal hurdles, the plan could also face financial and political roadblocks.

Alderperson Brock expressed concerns that some of the plan’s ideas are outside of the city’s purview. While the city does control it’s own police force, most health and mental health services are administered on the county level.

“The majority of the plan, perhaps even 90 percent of the plan would have to be implemented by the county,” she said.

“We do building inspections, we have streets and facilities, water and sewer and the fire department and the police department. That’s the jurisdiction of the city government: planning and zoning,” Brock said. “For us to come in with a Department of Drug Policy and tell the county and other municipalities what to do… I think it would be better if we encouraged the county to invite the police dept and youth services to be at the table in talking about drug policy — which I assume is already being done. So I’m not sure what the city’s role would be.”

6 – The plan came as a surprise

Building on the previous point, Brock said, “[Common Council] hasn’t had a chance to talk about it as a body or to hear directly from the mayor. If we were the body that administrated services in this way it would make sense, but we are not that body.”

The first part of that statement is something that stood out in talking with Common Council members, particularly: none of them seemed privy to much, if any, of what The Ithaca Plan consisted of before it was announced.

Murtagh mentioned that he knew a plan was being pursued — the mayor mentioned it in his State of the City speech, even — but said he knew little beyond that before the reveal.

Murtagh and McGonigal didn’t seem too bothered by Common Council’s exclusion in the planning process . McGonigal said that he knew and has a great deal of respect for all the people who had served on the committee and trusts their plan would provide a solid foundation.

Brock expressed some frustration over the way the plan was revealed.

“It felt very orchestrated to have the plan revealed through the media… It really allowed the mayor to direct the conversation through the media and leave the people who would be in charge of implementing it in the dark. That made it a challenging situation,” she said, adding she found it “disconcerting” that the media knew more about the plan than the legislators who would ultimately be working to implement it.

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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.