The plan seems wild at first glance: The mayor of Ithaca, N.Y., actually wants to open a supervised heroin injection center, where addicts could have a safe haven to take illegal drugs in front of medical professionals.
Nobody's ever tried this in the United States.
But a similar facility has functioned in Vancouver for more than a decade, and that's why Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick included the proposal in his city's comprehensive plan to battle drug addiction.
Myrick, whose own father was a drug addict, unveiled "The Ithaca Plan" on Wednesday, which incorporates aspects of the "harm reduction" model of anti-drug initiatives. The supervised injection center is only a small piece of the proposal, but it's perhaps the most unprecedented, at least in America.
Dr. Richard Blondell, a professor of family medicine at the University at Buffalo, said it'd be a mistake for the public to immediately discard the proposal.
"It sounds crazy," Blondell said, "but there are some good reasons as to why it might not be a bad idea."
According to the language of the Ithaca proposal, the city would "explore the operation of a supervised injection site staffed with medical personnel as a means to: prevent fatal and non-fatal overdose, infectious disease, and bacterial infections."
Blondell agrees that such a facility could prevent transmission of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C, thanks to cleaner needles. It would essentially take addicts off the streets and allow them to use heroin in a safe space, as opposed to an alleyway or an abandoned warehouse. Medical staff could monitor overdoses and save lives, Blondell said.
Ultimately, proponents of these centers believe the controlled environment could help addicts change their lifestyles. The centers could offer resources and medical expertise to people trying to get clean. Police would take a hands-off approach.
"Usually, it's a gradual process," Blondell said. "But at least it's an opportunity for people to start on the road."
The Vancouver facility, called "Insite," opened in 2003. A published study in 2011 showed the opening of the injection center led to a 35-percent decrease in overdose deaths in the surrounding neighborhood.
"They've actually helped get criminal elements off the street and into one location, and they have decreased the rates of transmission of diseases," Blondell said. "So Vancouver is one city that has seems to have done it correctly."
Vancouver actually has two facilities: one public center and one private center. European countries have tried the injection centers, too, with mixed results, according to Blondell.
"Other places have been set up, underfunded, staff not well-trained, didn't have the facilities there to help people... and they've closed up," Blondell said. "Hopefully, if this is done in Ithaca, they'll do it right. And they'll be successful, and it could serve as a model for the other cities in the United States."
But Ithaca's plan could face roadblocks at the state or federal level. Through a spokesperson, Assemblyman Sean Ryan (D-Buffalo) said an injection center is not a very effective solution to the problem. Dr. Gale Burstein, the Erie County Health Commissioner, told 2 On Your Side in December that these facilities would "send a mixed message" to addicts. She opposes the idea.
"Heroin is not a safe drug," Burstein said, "no matter how you take it."
Blondell said opponents of the facilities have valid concerns, but he argues the harm reduction model is a better way to treat addiction, a topic the public often misunderstands.
"The ignorance comes with (some people) not fully understanding that this is a brain disease," Blondell said. "(Addiction) sometimes comes with people making a few bad decisions when they are young. And those few bad decisions have led to a lifetime of addiction. You can't necessarily punish people."