Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

How Ithaca May Lead the Way in Solving America's Heroin Crisis

By Nisma GabobePublished March 23, 2016

The controversial legislation proposed by Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick would establish the first government supervised heroin injection facility in the United States. While this proposal is receiving plenty of backlash, current policies are failing to contain the heroin epidemic and these new rehabilitative and preventative measures have been effective in other countries.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that since 2000 there has been a 200% increase in the rate of deaths from opioid overdoses. In 2014 alone, there was a 14% increase from the year before. If implemented, this policy would include the establishment of the first heroin injection facility in the country, the only other facilities in North America being in Canada. In supervised heroin injection facilities, users are given access to clean needles and medical staff who provide treatment in cases of overdose. Users would be given recommendations for treatment programs as well. The plan also proposes other solutions such as Heroin Assisted treatment, the creation of an Office of Drug Policy, the establishment of a 24 hour crisis center, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), and a Youth Apprenticeship Program. Rather than punishing drug users, this policy aims to save lives and direct users towards rehabilitation treatments.

The main criticism of this policy is that heroin use is illegal so the government should not provide a space for citizens to use illicit drugs and that it is counterintuitive to offer such spaces for free use of drugs in order to decrease drug use. They believe that this policy would encourage heroin addicts instead of preventing drug use. However, supervised heroin injection facilities have proved effective in lowering the amount of opiate overdose in cities such as Vancouver, BC. This measure would also face legal troubles as heroin is an illegal substance. The city of Ithaca would have to receive an exemption from the state of New York as well as the federal government. The city government could also use the fact that the New York State Department of Health issued a state of emergency in 1992, which allowed local governments to make their own rules. The state of New York would have to treat heroin epidemic as a state of emergency in order to use this tactic to build the supervised heroin injection facility.

Thus far, this issue has been approached as a criminal one, but that has not produced effective results. The heroin epidemic is widespread and moving quickly and requires new ideas. In cities such as Vancouver where drug use and homelessness are big issues, supervised heroin injection facilities have saved lives. The Lancet reported that in 2011 there was a 35% decrease in overdose deaths within 500 meters of the facility in contrast to the 9% decrease in other parts of Vancouver. This shows that proximity to a heroin injection facility plays a role in preventing deaths from opioid overdose.  

Although Ithaca is a small town, with this legislation in place it could lead the country in solving an otherwise rapidly evolving heroin epidemic. Since the current approach that focuses on criminalization and punishment has not worked thus far, it is time to look to other options such as those that focus on prevention and rehabilitation.