Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Ithaca Plan

I've known plenty of white junkies. Back in the '80s, they were ubiquitous in my East Village neighborhood. A good friend ended up in rehab and turned it around. A co-worker I hired died of gangrene from a dirty needle. I once walked to work past a woman with suit and briefcase on the nod on the front stoop of her fashionable village brownstone. So I don't pretend that heroin is a scourge of poor urban African-Americans. But most people have pretended that, and the media has, for lo these many years—the result being that throughout the 20th century, heroin was a law enforcement problem, not a social or public health one.

Come the millennium, and suddenly heroin is the drug of choice for soccer moms with bad backs whose prescriptions for oxycodone have run out. When heroin is a major problem in New Hampshire, you know we've turned some kind of corner. Indeed, the media is suddenly extremely excited about heroin; local and national news magazines have cover articles decrying heroin's move to the suburbs, or Wall Street, or the children of middle class families. Yet, for the most part, it is still treated as a law enforcement problem.

Enter the Ithaca Plan, now trending on social media. Ithaca's mayor, whose father was an addict, looked around Ithaca, which is certainly not immune to drug problems, and set up a task force, which produced a plan. Taking a page from programs in Europe and Canada, the plan places law enforcement as one of four pillars, the others being prevention, treatment, and harm reduction. The piece of the plan that's getting the most attention is the supervised injection facility, meant to eradicate overdoses by providing a safe place to shoot up, with medical staff in attendance. It's sort of like when I get antibiotics—I always have to sit around with nurses nearby for 40 minutes until they know I'm not going into anaphylaxis.

But of course it's more controversial than that, and it's currently illegal, and our local police force has vowed to arrest anyone found there. So it's safe to say that the kinks have to be worked out. Ithaca will need assistance from the state and federal governments to make this happen.

Meanwhile, it's very exciting to see something proposed that is radical and different, as opposed to the same old stuff that hasn't ever worked. Our district attorney, who for a while has said that heroin is the most important local issue not being talked about, is on the front page of the Huffington Post today explaining why she favors the plan, for which she was an integral contributor.

There's plenty of resistance; people are already predicting that junkies around the world will move to Ithaca to set up shop. But this seems to be a well-thought-out plan based on plenty of existing data, and I'm interested to see how far Ithaca gets toward a saner, safer means of handling the heroin epidemic.

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