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How Ithaca’s Safe Injection Facility Could Change The Game

By Douglas Capraro

Research and statistics suggest that the Unites States is in the throes of one of the worst drug epidemics it has ever faced. Yet while the country’s reaction to those suffering from the drug epidemic has been largely compassionate, the federal government’s treatment of drug users has been anything but.

Scientific research shows that treatment for drug users can cut drug use in half, decrease criminal activity, as well as change their attitudes and beliefs towards drugs among many other things. However, the government continues to put most drug users in jail without sufficient treatment. In fact, a 2004 study found that only 15 percent of State prisoners and 17 percent of Federal prisoners took part in drug treatment programs with a trained professional.

One measure that can be implemented to help reduce drug use and drug-related deaths outside of the criminal justice system though is harm reduction. Described as any policy or program that aims to reduce the harm associated with the use of drugs, harm reduction has already been utilized to much success in places such as Portugal and British Columbia, Canada.

Now, the mayor of Ithaca, New York has proposed a revolutionary new harm reduction program that could totally change the game for reducing the effects of the drug epidemic in the United States.

America’s First Safe Injection Facility

Mayor Svante Myrick has proposed the introduction of the country’s first safe injection facility for drug users in the city of Ithaca. This is part of a larger plan aimed at addressing the central New York city’s rising drug abuse problem, which would also include offering treatment programs and emergency care to reverse overdoses.

According to Mayor Myrick’s proposal, Ithaca’s treatment of drug abuse mirrors the problems faced by other cities around the country, which is, “while new practices have been adopted to reduce the negative health and social consequences of drug use, older practices criminalizing drug use remain in effect.” This creates a dissonance in the way that drug use is perceived and, as a result, the way that it is handled. Since drug users are often seen as criminals under law, they are treated as such, thus ignoring the behavioral and health factors that often cause somebody to use drugs in the first place.

The mayor’s proposal uses these findings and others to highlight the need for a safe injection site, which would better observe the health and behavioral realities of drug use. This would in turn reduce the rising number of drug-related deaths while also giving users a better chance at receiving treatment services that are essential to help curb their addiction. By providing a site where intravenous drugs could be used safely, users would not have to resort to injecting drugs in alleys, public restrooms, run-down buildings and other unsupervised areas where the risk of a drug-related death is much higher. Access to clean needles also reduces an user’s exposure to infections, as well as diseases like hepatitis C and AIDS.

Despite many indications that a safe injection site would be successful in reducing the amount of drug related deaths among other factors, some policymakers do not think the mayor’s proposal would be a very good idea. There are also a few legal barriers that would make building a safe injection facility very difficult in the United States.

Legal Barriers and Opposition

Building a safe injection site directly violates the federal Controlled Substances Act, which prohibits the possession of drugs such as heroin or cocaine as well as operating a place where people use them. According to Leo Beletsky though, who is a law and health sciences professor at Northeastern University, either Congress could change the law or the U.S. Justice Department could make exceptions for these sites. This would require the states to legalize them in order for the federal government not to prosecute people who run and use them.

Although it would be better to legalize the facilities on a federal level, quicker access to care can created by created through executive orders issued by mayors or county executives. As Beletsky puts it, “Do you try to solve these [legal] problems first? Or do you proceed with what you know is needed, the innovation that is needed in, really, a time of national crisis?” 

In the eyes of some other politicians though, opening a safe injection site would be unwise. New York state Assemblyman Edward Ra, for instance, says, “I object to the idea that this drug can be used safely. It’s a drug that kills people.” He also says that a safe injection site would create a rift between the cooperation of local, state, and federal law enforcement.

Insite in Vancouver is the only safe injection site in North America.

Steve Schuh, a Republican county executive from Anne Arundel County, Maryland, opposes a similar bill that is trying to be passed right now in Maryland. He calls this bill “irresponsible” and says that it’s virtually the same as making the state an accomplice to murder.

However, as it stands in Ithaca, Myrick has already received permission from the district attorney in Tompkins County, Gwen Wilkinson. He is not interested in opening the site though unless he also gets permission from from the New York Legislature and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Safe Injection Sites Around the World

Although Ithaca’s safe injection facility would be the first of its kind in this country, it is already a reality in other parts of the world. Insite in Vancouver, for instance, is the only safe injection site in North American. More than 40 peer-reviewed studies have been conducted on Insite, which have found that needle exchange and safe injection programs significantly reduce HIV infections and overdose death rates. They also help increase the number of people seeking treatment without contributing to an increase in crime. As of January, another safe injection facility has been approved in Ottawa.

Kings Cross in Sydney, Australia is also home to a successful safe injection program. Their facility was first approved for an 18-month trial on April 5, 2001. Despite initial opposition from locals and community associations, the site eventually had it’s trial status lifted in 2010 and has been fully operational for 14 years. By 2011, more than 4,400 overdoses were treated without a single fatality, more than 9500 referrals to health and social welfare services were made, the number of publicly discarded needles and syringes in the Kings Cross area was approximately cut in half, and the number of ambulance call outs to Kings Cross decreased by 80 percent.

However, these are only a few examples of the many safe injection sites that operate around the world. Right now, there are almost 100 safe injection facilities outside of the United States, all of which have been the subject of intense research and evaluation. Overwhelmingly, drug consumption rooms have been proven to significantly improve public and client health. So while some people may be a bit hesitant to accept the fact that safe injection sites provide any benefit besides promoting drug use, it is important to understand how different places around the world have already benefitted from these facilities.