By Jay Wrolstad
By all accounts Tompkins County will play a pivotal role in the implementation of Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick’s proposal to address local drug abuse, dubbed “The Ithaca Plan: A Public Health and Safety Approach to Drugs and Drug Policy”.
Myrick, who unveiled the broad-based strategy earlier this year, made a formal presentation to the Tompkins County Legislature on June 7, along with District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson and Lillian Fan of the Southern Tier Aids Program. The presentation was well received, and legislators contacted by Tompkins Weekly offered some insight on how the county can get involved with the effort.
The Ithaca Plan is designed to address the problems of drug use, drug addiction and “the broader war on drugs.” It outlines proposals targeting prevention, treatment, education, harm reduction, law enforcement and public safety and community and economic development, among other areas of concern.
Legislator Martha Robertson suggests that the county has a more direct role than the city does in putting the plan into action. “We’ve been working on these issues for a long time. We welcome the city getting more engaged in this effort, which will require funding by the city, county and other municipalities,” she says, noting that the city is primarily involved through the Ithaca Youth Bureau, with education and job training.
Direct support services, such as mental heath, public health, and incarceration and reentry, are handled by the county, by statute and with funding, Robertson notes. “It’s a regional problem, not just a city problem—it’s not limited by municipal boundaries,” she says.
The city and the county both have assets that will be used together to make the Ithaca Plan work, and reduce the substance abuse problem, Robertson says. “With law enforcement the LEAD program, those aspects of the mayor’s plan would be handled by the county sheriff and all local law enforcement,” she says. “But it does not work without wraparound services; you need someone to take on drug offenders if they are not being sent to jail. What are the alternatives to jail?”
LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion), a community-based diversion approach with the goals of improving public safety and reducing the criminal behavior of people who participate in the program, is being used across the country. Police officers exercise discretionary authority at point of contact to divert individuals to a local, harm-reduction intervention rather than put people in jail.
Legislator Dan Klein sees this as one of the key elements of the Ithaca Plan. “LEAD gives police the option to put people arrested for drug crimes in programs that deal with addiction— to provide counseling instead of sending people to jail,” he says. “It is a parallel to our drug court. We will need a LEAD coordinator, and I think the county can set up the framework for this program.”
Klein notes that the county has a community outreach worker who works with the county, city and the Downtown Ithaca Alliance (DIA) to address public safety issues by connecting offenders to support resources.
In fact, last week the DIA Board announced that it has formally endorsed the Ithaca Plan (see story on page 12).
Creating a local detox center is another initiative in Myrick’s proposal that has the support of county legislators. The mayor wants a decriminalized drug injection site, but I feel that there are many other aspects of this plan that we can work on first, such as a detox center for drug-related crimes,” Robertson says. “The county Alcohol and Drug Council could make some progress on that.”
Legislator Jim Dennis concurs. “We have to have a detox center closer to those in our community who need it,” he says. “Currently there is no such facility in the county, and the problem is that people who need this to address their addictions are sent to the hospital, released and then are back on the street. The issue is long-term care that is closer to home.”
Before a safe injection site for illegal drugs is made available, says Dennis, “We can help people. We know that putting drug offenders in jail does not work.”
Says Klein, “There is a glaring need for a detox center. We have to determine whether that is run by a private agency or a government agency. I see a potential role for the county with this.”
The county is best equipped to address the mental health issues that are often behind incarceration for substance abuse, legislators say, citing the Mental Health Department, Public Health Department and Department of Social Services as the agencies that can become more involved.
“We need to understand why people are not connecting with existing county services. Mental health counselors are often not cross-trained to deal with substance abuse issues,” Robertson says. “These people should be trained to address drug crimes from a counseling aspect.”
Dennis says, “The county has all of these pieces in place, and we have more experience in these areas, which is critical in implementing the mayor’s plan.”
Also critical is involving communities throughout the county that can share responsibility for the youth services component of the Ithaca Plan, and the law enforcement component.
“If kids have meaningful activities they are less likely to end up in a bad situation,” says Robertson. “That’s more of a municipal rather than county issue. She notes that the county’s jail reentry program addresses another issue presented by Myrick.
“Because there are many county responsibilities, that’s the place to make sustainable change,” Robertson says. “We are ready to get involved with the mayor’s plan and I feel that collaboration with the city is a high priority. What’s important is that we work together.”
“From my point of view, the Ithaca Plan has many merits, and it will take money and a commitment from the city, county and area law enforcement to get it done,” Dennis says. I’m glad the mayor brought this forward, because we need to address drug abuse in this area. We need to be thoughtful on how we carry out the plan, and who will operate it.”
By Jay Wrolstad