Ithaca, N.Y., Mayor Wants Legal Shooting Gallery for Junkies

(Hilary Scheinuk/The Advocate via AP)

The story of a Bronx man busted in Vermont with 1,400 bags of heroin, using the trusty crowded colon trick to smuggle smack, is only one indication of the drug problem New York state and local officials are attempting to control.

The proposed cures range from throwing tens of millions of dollars at the scourge of drug addiction to letting heroin addicts shoot up without fear of arrest in government-sanctioned “supervised injection facilities.”

Legislators at New York’s Capitol in Albany don’t need the drug-sniffing dog who led Vermont police to the place in Fernando Estrella’s anatomy where the sun never shines to show them the extent of the drug addiction problem with which they are faced.

So perhaps it was not the Ides of March that forged a bipartisan agreement but a mutual grasp of a dark reality as state Assembly Democrats and GOP senators proposed spending tens of millions of dollars more than Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) included in his executive budget proposal to win the war on drugs.

Senate Republicans want to spend an extra $26 million, or 18 percent more than the $141 million Cuomo would like to devote to combating the heroin and opioid epidemic sweeping through the state of New York.

Democrats in the assembly would like to be even more generous. They’ve proposed spending $30 million more than Cuomo wrote into his budget.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D) contended the motivation to battle heroin and opioid addiction transcends political concerns.

“It has taken too many lives and touched too many homes,” he said. “All across New York State, it has become clear that we need to step up our game in the fight against heroin and opiate addiction.”

But that is just money, right? It isn’t groundbreaking, precedent-setting or even unusual for politicians to be generous with tax money to combat a problem that is enraging voters.

The 29-year-old mayor of Ithaca, N.Y., has an idea that is not all that trend-setting from a global perspective, but it is definitely fresh thinking as far as the war on drugs in the U.S. is concerned.

Mayor Svante Myrick (D) wants to do in his town what is being done in several countries in Europe and in Vancouver, British Columbia.

As part of a four-pronged proposal to fight heroin addiction, Myrick wants to open a place where addicts could use heroin, under medical supervision, without fear of prosecution.

“We have to try something else,” Myrick told WROC-TV.

The supervised-injection facility he’d like to open in Ithaca would also offer clean syringes and a path to treatment and recovery programs.

Myrick is confident the supervised-injection facility would cut down on drug use and sales, overdose deaths and disease and, ultimately, save taxpayer money.

But opening the doors isn’t going to be easy. Decades of thinking that drug addiction is a criminal, not medical, problem will have to be changed.

Before anything can happen, Ithaca is going to have to petition the New York State Department of Health to declare heroin addiction to be a health epidemic. Without that, the clinic could not open.

That would mean turning a bureaucratic battleship 180 degrees in heavy seas. But Myrick has the confidence of a freshly minted political millennial. “I believe this will be a model for cities around the country.”

The idea of a place where addicts can use drugs in the presence of a nurse who gives them an antidote in the event of an overdose has become the reality in Vancouver and several cities in Europe.

As was the initial concept, the success or failure of these facilities is still being debated.

However, a 2011 study of North America’s first supervised injection facility, InSite, in Vancouver, shows crime has fallen in its neighborhood and overdose deaths declined by 35 percent in the first two years of its operations.

Dr. David McKeown, Toronto’s chief medical officer, would like to see three supervised-injection sites opened in his city because of growing rates of addicts overdosing.

But the president of the Toronto Police Association, Mike McCormack, is afraid the facilities would only serve as a magnet for crime and loitering.

“InSite is not a model we want to see replicated,” he told the National Post.

Ithaca’s debate over Mayor Myrick’s proposal mirrors what is being said in Canada.

Ithaca Police Chief John Barber said he is “wary” of the idea. Republican Sen. Tom O’Mara told the New York Times that Myrick’s idea was “preposterous” and “asinine, while William A. Jacobson, a law professor at Cornell, said a “supervised injection facility” would be nothing but a “government-run heroin shooting gallery.”

But Kassandra Frederique, the director of the Drug Policy Alliance office in New York, reacted more positively.

She told the AP it is time to put the drug wars of the 1990s behind us, for “politics that promote saving people’s lives over stigma and shame.”