ITHACA, N.Y. — As the national discussion about supervised injection facilities progresses, local leaders are also working to continue the conversation locally.

The Health and Human Services Committee featured the subject Monday, bringing in local health and harm reduction experts to weigh in. Since the idea of opening a facility was introduced locally in 2016, many have raised concerns about the facility attracting more drug users to the area and normalizing drug use. Speakers Monday addressed some of the big questions and compared the fear and discussion around supervised injection facilities now to how syringe exchanges were received in the early 1990s.

Legislator Anna Kelles, committee chair, said having a supervised injection site is just one of many recommendations in The Ithaca Plan to address the opioid crisis, but it has attracted the most attention. Kelles said Tompkins County Legislature is not taking a stance on the issue, but said because there is a bill to make SIFs legal in the New York Assembly, “it’s time to get educated.” (Follow the status of the bill here.)

New York is one of several states pushing for supervised injection sites, places where people can inject drugs under medical supervision. Local leaders have visited and pointed to Insite in Vancouver as a successful model. Insite was North America’s first legal supervised injection site. Though there has been a lot of discussion in the U.S. lately, they are not new. Sites have operated for decades in Europe.

There are about 100 facilities in 11 countries, said John Barry, executive director of the Southern Tier AIDS Program.

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Barry likened the public concern about proposed supervised injection facilities to how syringe exchanges were received when they were first proposed. And syringe exchanges have been a “public health triumph,” he said.

The Southern Tier AIDS Program serves eight counties and has three fixed-site syringe exchanges, including Ithaca, Johnson City and Norwich. The program offers clean syringes and other supplies and offers STD testing, free and confidential services to people with HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C. Syringe exchange programs began as a research pilot in the early 1990s, similar to how supervised injection sites are being proposed, Barry said. When a syringe exchange was proposed in Ithaca, it was considered a radical idea in 2002.

Barry addressed some of the common concerns raised about supervised injection sites, including “Will they attract drug users?” The short answer, he said, was data points to no. He said it did not happen with syringe exchanges and does not appear to be happening in communities that have opened supervised injection facilities.

A study that reviewed 75 articles related to supervised injection facilities, mostly from Canada and Australia, found that SIFs promoted safer injection conditions, enhanced access to primary health care and reduced overdose frequency. Researchers did not find that the facilities increased drug injecting, drug trafficking or crime in the surrounding areas, the study concludes.

Barry said there is precedence for Tompkins County to be a “thought leader.”

“I can’t even have this discussion in many of the counties that we serve,” Barry said.

Before Monday’s discussion began, the short documentary “The Caring Community: Ithaca and the Movement for Supervised Injection Facilities,” was played. It was produced after The Ithaca Plan was unveiled in February 2016. It features local leaders and people who experience and work in the world of addiction locally.

In the documentary, drug policy coordinator and former district attorney Gwen Wilkinson said “There is a screaming need to make people safer from overdose and a supervised injection facility will provide that safety.”

In 2015, opioid related deaths killed more people in the United States than traffic accidents and homicides combined.

The Caring Community: Ithaca and the Movement for Supervised Injection Facilities from Sawbuck Productions, Inc. on Vimeo.

There has been a lot of conversation in the community about the sites since The Ithaca Plan called for bringing one to Ithaca. A traveling pop-up exhibit stopped in Ithaca in May to show what a supervised injection site could look like.

Among other discussions is bringing a much needed detox center to Ithaca. In April, the Alcohol & Drug Council of Tompkins County received a $500,000 grant to help support a 20 to 24 bed residential detox/stabilization and rehabilitation center in Tompkins County. It will offer 24/7 walk-in service.

Dr. Justine Waldman, an emergency room physician, said resources are currently being put in the wrong place. She said there is only so much room in the emergency department to handle people who need care related to addiction. Waldman also works as a contracted service provider at the Southern Tier AIDS Program. She emphasized how vulnerable the population of drug users is emotionally, homeless-wise and medically.

Seeing how drug users are treated is frustrating, Nicole Pagano, pharmacist and owner of Green Street Pharmacy said. “To see these people over and over again rejected, just looked at with disgust and disdain.” Pagano said in pharmacy school she was taught to hate and fear drug addicts and do anything to keep them out of their stores.

Dr. William Klepack, a family medicine doctor in Dryden and medical director for the Tompkins County Health Department, has researched supervised injection facilities and has found they accelerate individuals transitioning into medically assisted treatment, reduce needle sharing and reduce emergency room usage, Kelles wrote in a recent opinion piece.

Klepack, who attended Monday’s meeting, said the county needs to move forward in a fact-based manner and address concerns about limited resources and general public perception. He said they should also work to get local data.

Read more about supervised injection facilities

Featured image: Provided photo of Insite and Vancouver. Provided. 

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.