Friends and neighbors,
As a family physician and mother of two children ages 2 and 4, I want a safer consumption space in Ithaca because I support public health and safety. I want a safer consumption space precisely because I recognize the very real dangers of opioid misuse and I want to see an evidence-based solution that addresses the ills of opioid use, from discarded syringes in public to the extra pills in medicine cabinets around the country, to the rampant, deadly, expensive, and soul-crushing loss of lives.
A recent Harvard study found that an intensive care unit stay for opioid overdose cost an average of $92,000 in 2015. That figure is astounding, and yet we can all agree that the loss of a 35-year-old life is hugely more costly in both human and financial terms. The good news is we have solutions to prevent overdose deaths that are more effective at saving lives and far more cost-efficient than hospitals stays. The cost of two overdose admissions would be a nice down-payment on a safer consumption space, where a nurse and case worker are available to reverse overdoses if needed, and, importantly, can give caring, shame-free help and guide those who are ready toward treatment.
We can’t delay this public health intervention any longer. Our neighbors are dying. Our children’s friends’ parents are dying. Our high school buddies are dying. And they’re dying in parks, drivers’ seats, living room chairs, and on public bathroom floors. We need to do better and we already have the research and knowledge to implement solutions.
There are three main interventions that would help prevent overdose deaths:
- Prescribing opioid agonist medications like Suboxone, an opioid alternative that helps people who are opioid dependent get stable, which is often first step toward recovery. This medication combines a partial agonist (giving a limited opioid effect to prevent withdrawal and decrease drug cravings) with a “narcotic blocker” that, if injected, blocks the opioid receptors and gives a nasty, quick withdrawal, preventing injection abuse of the drug.
- Making naloxone (“Narcan”) widely available to both people who use opioids and those who are likely to help them. EMS has long provided naloxone and now Ithaca police officers do as well.
- Creating supervised consumption facilities where people who use opioids can do so without risking fatal overdose, without sharing needles, without being in public, and without being shamed. In the two years after Vancouver’s first safer consumption facility opened, overdose deaths in the nearby area decreased by 35%.
Fortunately, we already have the tools to make these life-saving changes: we have the infrastructure, the political will, the physicians, nurses, mental health professionals, administrative staff, building space, and a growing variety of treatment options to support this advance. Let’s act now before your grandson, your colleague, your wife, your child’s best friend’s father loses the battle against opioid addiction.
Some people are able to quit opioids using the camaraderie and support of Narcotics Anonymous and friendships. Some people are able to be highly functional and stay safe using prescribed Suboxone instead of illicit narcotics. But some people still struggle with problematic use. I want to be able to tell those patients they have a safer option than risking a lonely death. I want us to help shepherd them toward choosing life, hope, wellness.
We’re not aiming for perfection. We’re aiming for life and love. Though, perhaps, those are not so different.
Please join the discussion on December 18th at 4:30, at the next Health and Human Services meeting at 121 E. Court St.
Your friend and physician,
Elizabeth Bogel Ryan, MD
Featured image: Local residents got a glimpse of what a supervised injection site would be like when a traveling exhibit that stopped on the Ithaca Commons this spring. Photo by Kelsey O’Connor|The Ithaca Voice.