Community Radio WRFI | 88.1 FM Ithaca, 91.9 FM Watkins Glen

New grounds for safe drug injection site bill in Albany — yet no official yes from Ithaca or Tompkins

State legislators are trying to revive a bill establishing supervised injection sites that hasn’t moved since 2017. Here‘s John Yoon reporting for WRFI.

As the staggering epidemic of fatal opioid overdoses continues to rage, cities are looking for solutions.

You might remember the Ithaca Plan from 2016: a comprehensive drug plan proposed by Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick. It included a proposal to establish safe consumption sites, which required changes to state and federal law.

Safe consumption sites, also known as supervised injection facilities, would have trained staff who provide clean needles, administer naloxone when there are overdoses, and offer long-term treatment options. People would bring their own drugs — most often heroin.

With Democratic control of both houses, some state lawmakers in Albany think they now may have a shot at passing legislation allowing a pilot program for safe consumption sites to begin in New York State. After two years of no movement, the bill was reintroduced to the legislature on January 9.

But with many Democrat members of the state legislature skeptical — and lacking the official endorsement of Ithaca’s own Common Council and the Tompkins County Legislature — the future of the Ithaca Plan’s complete realization is not straightforward.

The bill is currently in the health committee, chaired by Senator Gustavo Rivera, who represents parts of the Bronx and is sponsoring the senate bill.

“I certainly intend to have a lot of conversations with my colleagues about it, and potentially move into the near future,” Rivera said. “However, this is a tough year. So we’re going to do our best.”

As opioid-related deaths reach record numbers in both Tompkins County and New York State, safe consumption sites would reduce the likelihood of fatal overdoses.

But some lawmakers said momentum for safe injection sites might still not be enough to bring them to upstate New York — even with Democratic control of both houses.

Democratic Assemblymember Barbara Lifton, representing Tompkins County, said she has not taken a position on the bill yet, saying she would need clearer indication from her local constituents in support of such a bill that has caused prolonged public dispute.

“It’s new, it’s controversial in many people’s minds,” Lifton said. “My locals aren’t telling me that they want me to go work on this.”

Neither the Ithaca Common Council nor the Tompkins County Legislature has yet passed resolutions in support of the Ithaca Plan.

Lifton said only a handful of constituents on both sides have discussed safe consumption sites with her since 2017.

Democratic Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, representing parts of Manhattan, also said that few legislators are focused on this bill at the moment.

“People are pretty much focused on the budget at the moment,” said Rosenthal, one of 17 co-sponsors of the bill in the Assembly. “But afterwards, we’ll turn our attention to that.”

Rosenthal added what’s dissuading legislators from moving forward might be something else.

“People are scared of Trump,” she said. “But the state isn’t scared of Trump in any number of other things. There’s no reason that the state could not still approve it.”

Federal prosecutors in Philadelphia launched a lawsuit on February 6th against a nonprofit formed to house the country’s first safe consumption site — and Rivera said that is certainly part of the conversation in the senate.

The federal government’s strict stance against safe consumption sites and the lack of broad support for the bill makes its fate unclear. Though Rivera said the federal government does not dissuade him from advocating the bill.

“This is precisely where we should be challenging the federal government,” Rivera said. “There has been many of us, including myself, that have stood proudly with our governor when he has stood against the worst impulses of the Donald Trump administration.”

Senator Rivera said he is not sure whether the bill will go on calendar for consideration by the full legislature. Ten out of the 15 members of the Senate health committee are Democrat; 18 out of the 25 in the Assembly health committee are Democrat. The bill, however, is still controversial among many Democrats.

If the legislative route doesn’t work, Rivera said there might be other ways: convincing Governor Andrew Cuomo or New York State Department of Health to start the pilot program.

Still, Assemblymember Rosenthal says the State Department of Health has not moved on New York City’s own proposal for safe consumption sites.

“People are waiting, people are wondering, people thought there might be an answer much earlier than now and there’s been nothing,” Rosenthal said.

If not through the Department of Health, the pilot program could be possible through executive action by the Governor or through the legislature — but not without an uphill battle.

This piece first aired on WRFI on February 15.

Image courtesy of Tom Wolf (CC Attribution 2.0 Generic).