On Wednesday morning, a room full of media and the public heard a summary of Ithaca's new drug policy.
The Ithaca Plan: A Public Health and Safety Approach to Drugs and Drug Policy is a 64-page document, called by the Drug Policy Alliance the "first report of its kind" in the United States to propose a comprehensive municipal drug plan based on ideas of harm reduction.
Mayor Svante Myrick touched on some key aspects of the plan in his opening remarks, including opening an Office of Drug Policy, a 24-hour crisis center, low-cost or free hepatitis treatments, and increasing awareness about New York's Good Samaritan laws - which allow people to call emergency personnel when overdoses happen without fear of legal repercussions.
The plan also calls for increased access to methadone in Ithaca -- right now, the closest clinics are in Syracuse and Binghamton -- and for more doctors trained to prescribe Suboxone, used to treat opioid addiction. The plan also calls for safe injection facilities where heroin users can shoot up under supervision, which has been a focus of media coverage since details started coming out when an AP report on the plan was released Monday. (Click on this link for more detail.)
There are four "pillars" to the plan: Harm reduction, treatment, prevention, and enforcement. All of those topic areas had committees of people, part of the Municipal Drug Policy Committee formed by Myrick in April 2014, dedicated to coming up with recommendations.
That "four pillars" approach was authored by Don MacPherson, of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. When Vancouver rolled out a similar plan in 2001, they were "responding to a desperate heroin epidemic of overdoses throughout all of the '90s and it was a public policy disaster," MacPherson said Wednesday. "Hundreds and hundreds died needlessly because of our lack of ability to respond."
Several of the 10 people who spoke after Myrick about the "Ithaca Plan" emphasized that the proposal is just what it says - a plan, and only a plan.
"Some of it might fail," said local psychotherapist Gepe Zurenda, who chaired the group tasked with looking at treatment options. "We might even say, 'Well that part was pretty stupid.' But what we're trying to do is improve a system that's not working."
"The moral implications of this are not terribly interesting to me," Zurenda continued. "We want to help save people's lives, cut down on suffering, and help people function in the world."
Travis Brooks, director of the Greater Ithaca Activities Center, said that though there should have been a similar response to the crack epidemic of the 1980s and '90s, from there came a "silver lining."
"Many of the people involved in this process were a product of what happened in the '80s and '90s," Brooks said. "We have the desire to do something different, to bring some change to this new epidemic."
Planners were given "a blank piece of paper" and told to "come up with what you think is best," Brooks continued. "Don't think about money, don't think about politics, don't think about anything except for solutions ... Whether you like an idea or not, that doesn't really matter. Figure out what it is you can support and be part of it. If you don't support a part of it, don't fight it. What if it saves a life?"
According to Nicole Pagano of the Green Street Pharmacy, there are four doctors in Tompkins County right now authorized to prescribe Suboxone, with each of them capped at 100 patients. Myrick later said that encouraging more doctors to prescribe Suboxone is one of the "low-hanging fruit" in the plan that could be implemented quickly. The first legislative priority will be to create a city staff position to head the Office of Drug Policy.
Within the "Ithaca Plan," there are no timetables, nor specifics like where any given facility might be located. Asked where a Tompkins County methadone clinic might be located, Myrick said that details like location were something that might have "derailed" planning from the beginning.
Asked about the possibly divisive nature of proposals like the supervised injection facility, Myrick responded that these ideas "are neither progressive nor conservative -- they just work."