ITHACA, N.Y. — Local residents got a glimpse of what a supervised injection site would be like Tuesday with a traveling exhibit that stopped on the Ithaca Commons.

For a few hours, there was a turquoise tent stationed on the Bernie Milton Pavilion set up to be a mock safe consumption site where if legal, people could bring and use illicit drugs with clean materials in a safe environment under supervision.

The 10-day exhibit is part of a “Safe Shape Tour,” which is traveling around New York. It’s meant to show what a safe consumption space looks like and is a way to educate the public about the philosophy of harm reduction.

The exhibit has been stopping in areas “hard hit” by the opioid crisis, organizers said. In addition to Ithaca, the exhibit is stopping in Albany, Poughkeepsie, New York, Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse.

Outside the tent Tuesday, a video called “Everywhere But Safe” played on a small tablet. The film shows public drug use across the state. In cities, it shows people injecting heroin in fast food restaurant bathrooms, in parks or under bridges, and people in rural areas shooting up in the woods or in cars.

“Wherever people can go,” Fred Wright, an organizer with VOCAL New York said.

Safe consumption sites are a harm reduction method of bringing people off the streets and into a clean space. It’s a place to meet someone where they are. It’s a way to let people know, “you are not useless, you are not a waste, you’re a human being and we want you to live,” Robert Suarez, a community leader with VOCAL New York, said. VOCAL New York is based in New York City and works to fight AIDS, Hepatitis C and mass incarceration, Suarez said.

Suarez said he got involved with VOCAL New York and other similar organizations after his mother, an intravenous drug user, died in his arms from AIDS.

Inside the tent, there were three stations. The first was the “supplies station” with clean needles, alcohol swabs, cookers, ties and other supplies for injecting. There were also packets available for smoking safely.

Clean materials available for drug users in the mock safe consumption site May 2 on the Ithaca Commons. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice
Clean materials available for drug users in the mock safe consumption site May 2 on the Ithaca Commons. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice

Next, people would take their sterile materials and previously purchased illicit drug to a “consumption station” to use their drugs, and then they would over to a “chill room.” Between the consumption spot and the “chill” space, people would be closely observed since that is when they are most likely to overdose. A nurse would nearby to administer naloxone if needed. There would be no time limit on how long someone could stay in the “chill” room, Suarez said.

When people begin to come down from whatever substance they’re using, people at the site would be on hand to provide information about the drugs they’re using or about services available to help them, whether that’s treatment, housing or medical care. Though information will be available, no one will ever be forced into anything.

“We want to make sure we give an individual an opportunity to make those choices, those healthy choices, on their own. This is part of what harm reduction’s about,” Suarez said.

Watch a video tour of the exhibit, guided by Suarez:

Safe consumption sites are particularly meant to help people who are longtime users, who haven’t thought about anything like healthcare for a long time, Wright said.

“It broadens the perspective on myself and allows me to see myself as someone who matters that should be cared for, and that’s really where psychologically, emotionally, where the biggest change is gonna happen in people’s brains and minds and spirit,” Wright said.

Though The Ithaca Plan, announced by Mayor Svante Myrick more than a year ago, proposes to bring a supervised injection site to Ithaca, there are no plans in the works. It’s not legal in New York, or anywhere in the United States yet. Some places are getting closer, though.

Kings County in Washington State has been approved to open the first supervised injection site in the U.S., and Maryland and Vermont have introduced legislation to allow them.

Local residents get a tour of the safe consumption site, part of a traveling exhibit. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice
Local residents get a tour of the safe consumption site, part of a traveling exhibit. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice

Supervised injection sites are not a new concept. They have operated for decades in Switzerland, and since the 1990s in other cities in Germany and the Netherlands. In the early 2000s, safe injection facilities were opened in Spain, Luxembourg, Norway, Canada and Australia.

Supervised injection facilities have been effective in reducing rates of HIV and other infections, as well as overdose deaths, organizers said.

What is on the horizon for Ithaca is a detox facility. The Alcohol & Drug Council of Tompkins County was recently awarded $500,000 to develop a local 20 to 24-bed detox center. The facility will offer 24/7 walk-in service.

Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick said having a detox facility is the first and most important thing the community needs to address the drug crisis, over a supervised injection facility.

“For people who are using in back alleys right now, there’s not a real good … path to get them into treatment. And that’s why you see in other communities where there’s supervised injection facilities, the people using are 35 percent more likely to enter treatment. So we think it’s a good entry point. But, we also need medicated treatment,” Myrick said.

While the concept of a supervised injection facility has been supported by local officials and advocates, many members of the public still have concerns about opening one in Ithaca.

Legislator Mike Sigler, R-Lansing, toured the exhibit Tuesday and said he was not opposed to the idea, but is not sold on it yet either. Sigler said his tour guide said something poignant to him, which is “these places already exist, it’s not like we don’t have places where people are doing drugs, [with the supervised injection site] now you know where it’s happening.”

Sigler said he would like to know more about the legality and liability of the safe injection sites for the county.

“I think these discussions are good. I think it’s great that they bring something like this down onto the Commons so it does facilitate the discussion forward, but if someone’s going to say ‘Why aren’t you signing off on this, it’s such a great idea?’ Well it may be, but there’s a lot of things that go into it, and you can’t ignore those things,” Sigler said.

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.