Ithaca Poised to Implement Safe Injection Facility

By Zachary Siegel 02/24/16

In the midst of a major opiate epidemic, the U.S. may finally be following the lead of Europe, Australia, and Canada by opening a supervised injection facility for heroin users. 

Svante Myrick, the mayor of Ithaca
Svante Myrick, Mayor of Ithaca, New York Photo via wikicommons

In an attempt to curtail opiate overdose, Svante Myrick, the mayor of Ithaca, New York, is proposing to offer the first supervised injection facility (SIF) in the U.S., making it possible for heroin users to inject their drugs under the supervision of medically trained staff.    

Following the trail blazed by Canada, Europe, and Australia, Myrick hopes to offer injection drug users services to keep them safe, while eschewing failed criminal policies such as drug court and jail. The new policy proposed by the mayor represents a cosmic shift away from criminality and toward public health. Indeed, heroin overdose is a public health crisis and ought to be addressed as such. 

In New York, heroin overdoses spiked from 215 in 2008 to 478 in 2012, according to the state Health Department. Heroin use across the country among 18- to 25-year-olds also rose from 3.5% between 2002 and 2004 to 7.3% between 2011 and 2013—a 100% increase.

"Using heroin is bad for you," Myrick told the Huffington Post on Monday. “Dying from an overdose is even worse. We have to keep people alive and get them the resources to get clean. They won't get those resources in public bathrooms and behind dumpsters in alleys."

Myrick further argued that supervised injection facilities "save lives, reduce illnesses and help people kick heroin." 

Myrick’s plan would also implement a program known as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, which gives cops the ability to direct heroin users to counseling, housing or other services instead of sending them to jail or drug court. A University of Washington study found favorable outcomes using LEAD in Seattle. 

In addition to the supervised injection facilities and diversion programs, Myrick’s ambitious plan calls for heroin-assisted treatment, which allows careful regulation and controlled prescriptions of heroin for people who have unsuccessfully attempted other treatments. 

Matt Curtis, who is co-founder of the NYC coalition and policy director at VOCAL-NY, a grassroots organization that wants to end the war on drugs, said the mayor displayed bravery for proposing a progressive public health plan. 

"Nothing else has worked," Myrick said. "We can't continue to try the policies that have so badly failed to keep our friends and family alive and healthy." 

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.