ITHACA, NY (WSKG) – Discussions are continuing in Ithaca about opening a supervised injection site. A place where drug users are able to inject heroin under medical supervision with the goal of reducing the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C, infections, and overdose deaths. The Southern Tier AIDS Program believes they could run it. They already operate three syringe exchanges in Ithaca, Norwich and Johnson City.
John Barry heads up the Southern Tier AIDS Program and their syringe exchanges. Inside their Ithaca building, you have to walk under a garland of colored fabrics. Most are handwritten memorials to people who’ve died from overdoses. It’s those deaths that Barry says a supervised injection site can prevent.
Supervised injection sites in Canada are already preventing deaths. At one in Vancouver, they’ve treated over 6,000 overdoses since they opened in 2003 and no one has died.
These facilities are illegal in the U.S., but STAP could run one as a public health research project. They already have experienced medical staff.
But not everyone’s ready to transition to Suboxone and start recovery. Barry says conventional models of treatment, which require abstinence, aren’t effective enough. And most people with heroin addiction relapse. As another addiction specialist said, “The reality is people need to live long enough to make it to recovery.” Barry believes supervised injection sites provide that needed time.
“Eighty percent of people who come to our syringe exchange programs have been through treatment before. Sometimes multiple courses of treatment,” said Barry.
That was the case for Brian Briggs.
“Most treatment places, there’s this focus on total abstinence,” he said.
“It’s not about being clean. It’s about having a better quality of life.”
Total abstinence means, in part, that those organizations don’t allow for a transition to replacement therapies, like Suboxone, methadone, or Buprenorphine.
Briggs works with Barry at STAP. He tried rehab several times before doctors found the right combination of medication and therapy to help his heroin addiction and pain problems.
Public health experts say supervised injection sites become a space where people feel safe and trust the staff enough to ask for help whenever they are ready to start recovery.
“We have lots of evidence that these sites may help people into drug treatment faster than they would have otherwise,” said Peter Davidson, a public health expert who studies the public impact of syringe exchanges and supervised injection sites.
However, the Tompkins County Sheriff says he can’t support the idea of a place where it’s legal to use illegal drugs. He worries it will create more crime problems. The Ithaca Police Chief won’t comment.
Davidson, says the reverse is likely to happen.
“You might, hopefully, see a decrease in the number of people using drugs, which means a decrease in the number of people who have engaged in the kind of petty crime that you’re talking about.”
Opening a supervised injection site won’t happen soon. It takes permission from the New York State Department of Health, support from the community and local law enforcement.