Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

How The Ithaca Plan Aims to Curb Heroin Use

By Mandira TalwarPublished March 23, 2016

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Why has heroin has become so problematic in the United States and how can Ithaca's proposal help curb it locally and nationally?
The Ithaca Plan, published with the approval of Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick, is a roadmap to diminishing drug abuse and overdoses in the greater Tompkins area. Announced on a few short weeks ago, The Plan has already courted widespread and polarized actions due to the proposed use of an unconventional mechanism to decrease heroin and other needle drug related deaths. In order to fully appreciate why the mayor Myrick has supported this unusual route, it is imperative to first understand the state of heroin use today.
           Since 2002 it has taken just over a decade for heroin-related deaths to nearly quadruple - with more than 10,000 deaths in 2014 alone. Research indicates not only that heroin usage among all adults has increased, but also that it is now being used by previously unlikely demographics such as women and those with incomes greater than $50,000. Here in the city of Ithaca the number of drug-related misdemeanors has averaged roughly 88 arrests per year from 2010 to 2014 and during the same time period the number of drug-related deaths averaged almost 12 per year. The CDC estimates that this steep rise in heroin use is caused in part by both an increased availability of the drug as well as its low price relative to other similar opioid drugs.
           While it is clear that heroin use is a problem it is less clear if either the federal or state governments would be best equipped to tackle this problem. The result is that without explicit action from higher branches of the government on how to stop heroin use it is up to local government to translate rhetoric into results. Enter mayor Myrick's potential solution: The Ithaca Plan. The specific part of this plan that has everyone from local residents to national newspapers buzzing about is the suggestion to introduce medically supervised heroin injection sites as a method to curb heroin use in the city and greater Tompkins Community. The Plan advocates for such injection sites because the process will now be safer for individuals on a variety of levels: while at the injection site, there will be trained medical staff prepared to prevent overdoses and infections that arise from unsafe drug habit, and, to combat future unsafe drug use, there will be needle exchanges and referrals to community resources like housing and rehab. Additionally, in terms of monetary benefit The Ithaca Plan projects that the resulting costs of not having a proper detox center, which would include the heroin maintenance program, and instead relying on Cayuga Medical Center to be upwards of $400,000 or roughly $13.55 per resident of Ithaca. The Plan further argues that such sites have consistently worked well in other nations such as Britain, Switzerland, and Germany, where rates of heroin use have dramatically decreased and failed to rise in recent years.
           It is clear that the Ithaca Plan has two major positives: supervised heroin injection sites can diminish heroin use and that the plan has power to save the city of Ithaca money in the future, assuming the sites stem heroin abuse and related overdoses. On the flip side, however, there are major negatives regarding the proposed plan the two mentioned positives of the plan rely on heavy assumptions. Justifying the program based on success in other nations should be done with caution since heroin use is affected by local environmental factors. In the case of saving money, the program assumes that there will be enough of a turnout at the sites to decrease heroin usage, which means if turnout is not high enough the initial investments into the treatment center could have been money better spent. Two other key concerns about the plan include the legality of such a plan as well as not enough research indicating the scale of heroin, not just in general drug, use in Ithaca. To summarize, while The Ithaca Plan has the potential to be an effective mechanism for decreasing heroin use in the future, for now it remains questionable and further research is needed in order to determine if it is a step towards action or just more bureaucracy.