ITHACA, N.Y. (WIVB) — A college town of 30,000 people about three hours from Buffalo is considering what some feel is a radical approach to the opioid crisis.
The City of Ithaca made national headlines when its Mayor, Svante Myrick, proposed a supervised injection facility, or SIF.
“It seems backwards at first. It seems like, we want to discourage drug use, so why would we supervise it?” Svante said.
But that’s exactly what Myrick thinks could combat this growing and deadly problem.
SIFs have been around for decades in some European countries. Canada opened one almost 13 years ago in Vancouver called InSite; it’s the only one in North America.
SIFs are typically run by public health workers and medical staff.
They give users clean needles and allow them to bring in pre-obtained drugs to inject. Staff on-site is trained to revive users in the event of an overdose. They’re also given information about how to get clean.
“We want our friends and family to recover from drug addiction. Nobody recovers if they’re dead,” Myrick told News 4.
Myrick said InSite is a model for Ithaca, and he’s received support from a lot of people in his city, including Tompkins County District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson.
“It enhances public safety, it lessens the burden on the criminal justice system,” she said.
Myrcick said public safety is at the center of his proposal.
“So that you don’t have needles on playgrounds. So that you don’t have sharp objects in your creeks, on your sidewalks,” the Mayor told News 4.
Dirty needles used to the litter the ground in a place called “The Jungle” in Ithaca.
The former city dump has been transformed into a sort of metropolis for the homeless; there’s dozens of encampments there. It’s one of many places users go to shoot up.
“It was like an outdoor bar room, with no bars. People came, and people would get shot, knifed. Los of bad stuff, and drugs and all that,” Ithaca resident Carmen Guidi told News 4.
But “The Jungle” isn’t as wild as it used to be. Guidi started coming down here about three years ago.
He’s gotten to know all of the people who live here, and even built several cottages, free of charge, for people who want a place a stay.
While not all the people in “The Jungle” are drug users, Guidi said it’s often a safe bet.
Many in the city credit him with cleaning up “The Jungle.” He said lawmakers just started taking homelessness more seriously.
Guidi is in full support of Myrick’s SIF proposal.
Law enforcement officials tend to feel differently.
“I just don’t see how you could condone doing something that’s currently against the law,” said Niagara County Sheriff Jim Voutour.
He doesn’t see how a legal injection site could help the problem long-term.
“It’s almost like we’re raising the white flag up the telephone pole and saying we give up, just come here and do your heroin.”
Myrick’s Proposal would follow a lot of the same guidelines as InSite; users wouldn’t face possession charges while using in the SIF.
Unless state law changed, Voutour said law enforcement is stuck.
Another concern he said, is how a SIF would impact neighborhoods.
“How would you you say that you can go into a location, in someone’s neighborhood. And how are we going to pick that neighborhood? I know I wouldn’t want to live next door to it, I don’t think anybody else would,” he said.
There’s been several reports claiming InSite has significantly cut down on drug-related crime in it’s surrounding community.
Reports also state more addicts are seeking treatment due to InSite’s existence, but the Journal of Global Drug Policy and Practice has criticized several of these findings and claims the SIF has overstated it’s impact.
Myrick feels the logic is pretty simple; if you’re going to do something anyway, why not regulate it and try to make it safer?
“People think this is enabling that this might encourage people to use drugs. People don’t use heroin because they think it’s going to end well,” he told News 4.
Wilkinson said drug court in Tompkins County is riddled with drug abusers, and they’re all in for the same things.
“Petty larceny, grand larceny, robbery, burglary.”
She thinks a SIF would cut down on property crime.
“Frankly, the war on drugs has failed. We are not stopping drugs from coming into this country and we are not stopping people from using drugs by arresting our way or trying to arrest our way out of the problem,” Wilkinson told News 4.
Voutour agreed that arrests aren’t the answer, but said they certainly play a role; an important one.
He said SIFs gives dealers way too much of an opportunity.
“Talk about a target rich environment. If I was going fishing I would go in the pond that has a lot of fish,” he said.
In Ithaca’s proposal, users would only be allowed to bring in a single dose at a time, nothing that could be re-sold.
The “honey pot effect” is a concern noted by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, but early observations suggest that’s not a huge problem in Vancouver.
While Voutour isn’t on board for giving SIFs a try, and tells News 4 he doesn’t feel a proposal like that would stand a chance in Western New York, he isn’t giving up on trying to get ahead of this epidemic.
“We’re not going to give up on it. I know that people say you know the war on drugs doesn’t work. But man we make it as hard as we can on the dealers. And that has a positive effect.”
Last month, the Niagara County Sheriff’s department made a huge bust, and took out major dealers in the Western New York area. But Voutour admits, it’s an uphill climb, and it keeps getting steeper.
“It’s kind of like you know, taking a spoon full of water out of the ocean. You know, there’s always more water to take it’s place,” he said.
If a SIF were to be approved for the City of Ithaca, how would it be funded?
Myrick said securing funding is something they’ll address a little further down the road, if and when the proposal is given the green light, but he envisions one of Ithaca’s needle exchange locations being able to function as a SIF for as little as $50,000 a year.
“In America, last year, 5,000 fewer funerals would have happened. 5,000 more people would be alive right now and a fair amount of them on their way to recovery if we would just adopt this proven technique,” Myrick said.
InSite’s effectiveness is up for debate among medical professionals and social scientists, but it’s had zero overdose deaths since it opened.
Voutour, along with Erie County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein do not feel a SIF would positively impact Western New York or cut down on heroin-related deaths; they say there really is no way to make heroin safe.
Some argue all a SIF would do is normalize using.
Myrick feels like the number of deaths speak for themselves; heroin, sadly, is becoming more normal.
The ultimate goal he told News 4, is getting users into treatment, but in the interim keeping them alive.
“As long as the proper medicine is there, nobody has to die of a heroin overdose,” he said.
“I’ve been at this job 23 years. I haven’t seen something like this before. I, I don’t know the answer. We keep doing little pieces of the puzzle,” Voutour told News 4.
Voutour is fighting the epidemic by boosting resources for addicts who are incarcerated. He’s applied for a million dollar grant to provide inmates in Niagara County access to Vivitrol while still locked up. It’s a drug that fights withdrawal symptoms for 30-60 days to give inmates a head start on getting clean.
Myrick’s proposal is being supported by New York Assembly member Linda Rosenthal, who is expected to introduce a bill in the next legislative session which would make SIFs legal throughout New York State.