The former president of Switzerland, Ruth Dreifuss, stopped in Ithaca on Wednesday to discuss drug policy and share her experience as the city forges ahead with The Ithaca Plan.

One of the most controversial recommendations in The Ithaca Plan is creating a supervised injection facility where drug users could inject heroin under medical supervision.

While Vancouver is often pointed to as a model for supervised injection facilities, the first legally sanctioned facility in the world started in Berne, Switzerland in 1986. It was a cafe opened as a way to combat HIV. Meals and beverages were served along with information about safe sex and safe drug use. Condoms and clean needles were available as well as counseling.

“In Switzerland, they’ve had wonderful success in both reducing crime and reducing mortality while improving the health and improving the lives of people,” Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick said at a press conference Wednesday. Myrick attributed a lot of that success to Dreifuss.

Dreifuss is a commissioner with the Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose mission is to “bring to the international level an informed, science-based discussion about humane and effective ways to reduce the harm caused by drugs to people and societies.”

On Wednesday, Dreifuss visited Ithaca to meet with Myrick to discuss supervised injection facilities. She toured the Jungle and the Cayuga Correctional Facility to speak with people affected by drug use. She also visited Second Wind Cottages and the Southern Tier AIDS Program.

Dreifuss said she was impressed by Myrick and the people leading The Ithaca Plan’s aim to leave nobody behind.

“I think it’s the big challenge for politician[s]. You can always find solutions for 80 percent of the population. That’s quite easy. But the 20 percent who are not integrated in this policy, who are not touched by this policy, these are the people you have the duty I would say to find original, pragmatic ways to enter into contact with them and to bring them the services they need,” Dreifuss said.

From left, Lillian Fan of the Southern Tier AIDS Program, Mayor Svante Myrick, Ruth Dreifuss, former president of Switzerland and former district attorney Gwen Wilkinson.

Dreifuss said drug users struggle in cities all over the world, not just because they are consuming substances, but because they are doing so an environment that does not accept them.

“These people are at risk not only because they are consuming such a substance, but because they are consuming such a substance in an environment that is against them, in an environment that is not accepting them as full citizens, in an environment that is accepting them as people who need access to medical services, as people who are not considered as deserving — just deserving — to be considered as member of the community,” Dreifuss said.

Previously, Dreifuss was Swiss Minister of Home Affairs. In 1993, Dreifuss was elected Federal Councilor (Member of the Swiss government) by the Federal Assembly (Parliament) and served as President of the Swiss Confederation in 1999. From 1993 to 2002 Dreifuss was head of the Swiss Federal Department of Home Affairs, the ministry responsible for public health, social insurance, scientific research, higher education, gender equality and culture, and environment.

Dreifuss implemented new policies in the fields of drug addiction and prevention of HIV/AIDS. She also led the introduction of the health insurance law that guaranties universal coverage for the Swiss population. After her retirement from government, she contributed to the WHO report on intellectual property rights, innovation, and public health and joined the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

Dreifuss said drug users need places they can find help without going to a hospital. Aside from supervised injection facilities, she said people need access to basics like food and housing. She also said access to methadone treatment is important. She said in Copenhagen, there are lawyers on bicycle where they have coffee, cookies and law books. They go out and meet people on the street and tell them their rights, Dreifuss said.

“We need these people on the street, but we need also places where they can be I would say neither harassed by the police, nor harassed by the dealer, place[s] where they can just sit down and rest, places where sitting down and resting, they can also consume in a safe way,” Dreifuss said.

Dreifuss said safe consumption rooms save lives. “And what is the most noble mission of a politician? To save life of the citizens and to help them because they are living, still, to reconstruct a balanced life.”

Supervised Injection Facilities are not legal in the United States, and the idea of having one in Ithaca has drawn a lot of scrutiny in the community. People have raised concerns, asking whether having such a facility would draw more drug users to Ithaca and increase crime.

Based on her experience, Dreifuss said safe injection facilities have helped the whole community.

“You know that there will be no syringes lying around, that the people are in a more or less structure life and not just always chasing after the substance and being themselves chased by the police and by the dealers. So having a safe place is really the way I would say to reintegrate into society people and it is not promoting consumption. It is just taking conscience that there is consumers, that there are consumers and that they need to have a life where they can think about something else than the drugs. And this is the first step to change life,” Dreifuss said.

Going into next year and the next legislative session, Myrick said he is going to continue to work to convince legislators supervised injection facilities are the right thing to do.

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.