Why I, as District Attorney, Am Behind Ithaca's Groundbreaking Plan to End the War on Drugs

Like so many communities throughout our state and across the country, Ithaca is struggling with addiction and substance abuse. This is our a new normal. We are an enlightened, educated and compassionate community. What can we do?
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Like so many communities throughout our state and across the country, Ithaca is struggling with addiction and substance abuse. This is our a new normal.

People, especially young people, are dying in unprecedented numbers from opioid overdoses. And as overdose deaths rise, law enforcement has joined with policymakers to declare that we cannot arrest our way out of this crisis.

We are an enlightened, educated and compassionate community. What can we do?

In 2014, Mayor Svante Myrick established the Municipal Drug Policy Committee (MDPC) to answer that very question. The committee was tasked with identifying new drug policies and practices the City of Ithaca could adopt immediately, and to draft a set of policy recommendations that the city can lobby for at local, state and federal levels.

Hundreds of community members, officials, and stakeholders participated in this work, motivated by their direct personal experiences with the ravages of addiction, policing, overdose and more. Our focus? Finding new ways to address prevention, treatment, harm reduction and law enforcement.

The result of the committee's efforts is The Ithaca Plan: A Public Health and Safety Approach to Drugs and Drug Policy, which is being released Wednesday.

The plan's recommendations mirror successful policies being implemented around the world in cities like Frankfurt, Germany, as well as a rising tide of legislation in the U.S. from states like Maryland, where heroin deaths alone have increased by 186 percent in the last five years. Recommendations range from opening a 24-hour crisis center and considering a supervised injection facility to focusing on youth employment to increase civic engagement and lessen the risk of illicit involvement in the drug trade.

For New York, it's an important step in acknowledging and tackling a challenge that threatens the health and safety of all of our citizens.

As a career prosecutor who has spent 25 years working in very close proximity to the "war on drugs," I am all too familiar with the strategy for dealing with drug possession and trafficking: criminalization, prosecution and incarceration. I also know that this strategy has failed.

At both the state and federal level, overly long prison sentences are meted out with outrageous racial disparities. Massive amounts of federal, state and local resources have been poured into this effort. Millions of people have been incarcerated across the U.S.

Yet despite more than 40 years of this so-called war on drugs, drugs continue to pour into our community and communities across the country. The trafficking continues unabated. And cheap heroin is more accessible than ever before.

Revolutionary thinking about drug policy isn't new to Ithaca. One of the earliest treatment courts in New York was created in Ithaca City Court. These courts operate on a team model that integrates treatment into a defendant's sentence.

Today the record is clear. Treatment courts have contributed significantly to the rehabilitation of many addicts, but only once they're in the criminal justice system. For these addicts, their families and the community, this intervention comes too late.

For years, law enforcement has carried the burden of dealing with substance abuse - mainly alone, and without sufficient tools to do more than arrest offenders and seize yet another haul of drugs. But the causes of destructive substance use are rooted in issues far beyond the simplistic notions of character defects and "criminal tendencies."

Law enforcement agencies are now taking a new approach to help addicts find treatment outside the criminal justice system, based on science, reason and compassion. To that end, the Ithaca Plan incorporates innovative recommendations like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), which allows law enforcement to immediately direct drug offenders to housing, treatment and other vital services.

In the world of drug policy reform, a new normal has emerged, one that recognizes that addiction is a disease that must be addressed as a public health issue and that treatment must be more accessible than jail.

Until we make the experience of the disease of addiction safer, none of us are immune to the problem. The Ithaca Plan represents a bold first step - one I hope other communities across our state and our nation will take alongside us.

Gwen Wilkinson Tompkins County District Attorney and Co-Chair, Ithaca Municipal Drug Policy Committee

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