- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A heroin injection facility could be coming to the central New York city of Ithaca if its mayor succeeds with plans for opening the first of its kind in the country amid a deadly opioid epidemic.

Mayor Svante Myrick — a 28-year-old, Ivy League-educated Democrat — announced on Monday that he’ll ask New York’s Health Department to declare Ithaca’s heroin problem a state health crisis so he can pursue efforts to establish a center where addicts can shoot drugs under the care of a nurse without risking arrest and while diminishing the odds of death. Formal plans are set to be revealed on Wednesday.

“My father was a drug addict. He split from the family when I was 5, 6 years old,” Mr. Myrick told The Associated Press. “I have watched for 20 years this system that just doesn’t work. We can’t wait anymore for the federal government. We have people shooting up in alleys, in bathroom stalls, and too many of them are dying.”

Ithaca, a city of roughly 30,000 situated about an hour south of Syracuse, has not been spared from a surge in overdoses that continues to claim lives from Albany to Buffalo and all points in-between. Statewide, overdoses blamed on heroin and other opiates went 186 in 2003 to 914 in 2012, and Ithaca began exploring alternatives to incarceration after witnessing three fatal overdoses and 13 non-fatal incidents during a three-week span in 2014.

The result has been the creation of what the mayor has called a “health-based approach to drug policy” — a multi-pronged plan for curbing fatal overdoses through treatment, harm reduction, public safety and prevention. And if Mr. Myrick has his way, the opening of the nation’s first heroin injection facility, as well.

“While much of drug policy is driven at the state and federal level, there is a great deal that municipalities can do to create more effective drug polices,” he said in a statement. “Given the way that drugs and drug policies are harming our community, I know we need a totally new approach.”

The mayor was quick to admit that his plan isn’t exactly orthodox, however, acknowledging: “What we’re proposing is different, and different is scary.”

“I think even people who oppose this are opposing this with good intentions. They want people to get healthy, and they don’t want people using drugs, and neither do I,” he told the Ithaca Journal. “The only thing I can say to people who oppose it, it’s not enough to be angry about the problem if all you’re going to do is what you did before. If you keep seeing the same problems and proposing the same solutions, then you’ll never make progress. So it’s not enough to get angry, you’ve got to get smart, and you’ve got to be willing to try.”

“We have been trying this a certain way for 40 years, we’ve been treating this as a criminal problem instead of a health problem and that’s been very expensive,” Mr. Myrick said. “We’ve built all these prisons, we’ve locked up a lot of people.”

Instead of incarcerating heroin users, Mr. Myrick hopes the city can save money and lives alike if addicts are allowed to shoot up in a facility where they won’t be unattended in the event of an overdose.

Canada, Europe and Australia have already opened injection centers of their own, and the administrators of “Insite” in Vancouver say that not a single person has died of an overdose at the center despite hosting an average of 800 users a day since opening in 2003.

“This part of the plan is about keeping people alive, helping them get treatment, helping them get better, but in the meantime making sure that they live long enough to get that treatment,” Mr. Myrick told 1010 WINS radio. “Once you die from an overdose, there’s no opportunity to get better, no opportunity to get treatment.”

“I think we need a comprehensive plan, because I think every community does,” he added to the Ithaca Journal. “I mean, I think the federal government needs a different plan, but they’re not doing it, and the state’s not doing it. So we sort of had to do it ourselves. And we did it ourselves not because we’re the heroin capital of America, our problem is no worse than anywhere else, but we do lose people just like you’re seeing everywhere across the country.”

• Andrew Blake can be reached at ablake@washingtontimes.com.

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