Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of stories regarding a recent trip city officials took to Vancouver in Canada to learn more about drug reform. For complete coverage about Ithaca’s controversial new drug policy — called The Ithaca Plan —  visit our archives. 

ITHACA, N.Y. — Four people were using heroin in an alleyway when a Vancouver police sergeant, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick, and other Ithaca officials stumbled upon them around 8 a.m. during a recent trip to Canada.

“What are you doing?,” the sergeant asked.  “You need to go inside. Go into InSite .”

“Oh, I didn’t think they were open yet,” one of the users told the sergeant.

The four of them then got up, turned the corner and presumably walked into the open doors of InSite, the first legal supervised injection facility in North America.

Related: Ithaca looks to Vancouver on drug policy; focus on treatment over enforcement

Myrick said the sergeant told them, “It’s a good thing (InSite). I just wish they were open 24 hours.”

During the 48-hour trip last month, Myrick, Ithaca Police Chief John Barber, and other people from the city who have been involved in creating the controversial Ithaca Plan went to Vancouver on a “fact-finding mission.”

The trip was paid for by the Drug Policy Alliance, not the City of Ithaca, so officials could see firsthand the results of the Vancouver model of drug reform.

The Ithaca Plan, announced in February as the city’s new drug reform strategy, calls for radical changes to how officials cope with increasing, primarily opioid-based drug addictions and crimes stemming from addiction. Among the most controversial suggestions are the push for legal supervised drug injection facilities, heroin maintenance therapy, and bringing medicated treatment facilities with suboxone and methadone options back to Ithaca.

Photo by Lillian Fan, Assistant Director of Prevention Services at the Southern Tier AIDS Program

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

During the Vancouver trip, Myrick said there were a few surprises, but for the most part, what they saw lined up with the extensive research that’s been done about Vancouver’s drug reform policies.

Here are three of Myrick’s takeaways from the trip:

1) Drug use is contained

The immediate area around the InSite office is what one might expect. There appeared to be people, Myrick said, who looked like drug users nearby. Then there were the four people officials stumbled upon momentarily in the alley directly along the InSite building.

But then, as if on the other side of an invisible fence, businesses as nearby as across the street or a block over were thriving, Myrick said.

Photo by Lillian Fan, Assistant Director of Prevention Services at the Southern Tier AIDS Program

“You were like in hipster heaven – bars and restaurants and coffee shops,” he said.

He compared it to a season of the television show “The Wire,” when a police captain unofficially legalized drug use in a quadrant of the city. People in the television show flocked to the area, making the surrounding area safer.

He said there’s an uncanny similarity to the show and what happened in the downtown East Side of Vancouver over a period of years. That side of town has a notorious reputation for high crime rates, open drug use and homelessness.

“I guess that’s what surprised me, but it (also) didn’t surprise me,” Myrick said about the containment.

2) Regardless of what the addiction is — heroin, methamphetamine, alcohol — it’s treated the same way

In the United States, different addictions get treatment in different ways. In Vancouver, addiction of any kind is treated as one, albeit complex, problem, Myrick said.

“They just think of all of it as drug conception,” he said, noting that people who use one kind of drug are also likely to use another.

“A lot of folks there, are just in pain of some sort and they’re trying to dull it with whatever they can get their hands on,” he said.

The Vancouver facilities, he said, are able to meet people’s complex needs by offering a variety of services for drug addiction, but also for other needs sch as low-income housing.

At InSite, Myrick said, the facility has several booths lined up with sterile equipment available for people to use while shooting up drugs. Each booth also contains a mirror in front of the user.

“They want people to look at themselves, see their own reflection,” he said. “They think that forces good self-reflection.”

Afterward, users are taken to another room to “hang out” and wait for the high to pass.

Photo by Lillian Fan, Assistant Director of Prevention Services at the Southern Tier AIDS Program

3) The drug policy seems to be largely supported by the public

It started when a customs official asked Myrick why he was coming to Canada: to see the Vancouver drug policies in action.

Myrick said the woman stamped his passport and told him that treatment was a major issue and that there needed to be more of it.

While in Vancouver, Myrick said he talked to a variety of people: business owners, public officials, the general public.

“They way they talk about it,” Myrick said. “They say ‘It saved my life. It saved my brother’s life. It saved my friend’s life.’”

The Tompkins County Health Department stated that in 2014, there were 14 fatal overdose deaths in the county.

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.