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Ithaca Mayor Wants To Let Heroin Users Shoot Up Under Nurse Supervision

ALBANY, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) -- An upstate New York mayor wants his city to be the first in the U.S. to offer a supervised injection facility, where heroin users would be able to shoot up under the care of a nurse without getting arrested by police.

Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick said the facility, which would also connect addicts to recovery services, is one piece of a new approach he wants his city to take against the scourge of addiction.

"This part of the plan is about keeping people alive, helping them get treatment, helping them get better, but in the meantime making sure that they live long enough to get that treatment," Svante told 1010 WINS. "Once you die from an overdose there's no opportunity to get better, no opportunity to get treatment."

The mayor said this facility would be staffed by nurses or physicians who could quickly administer an antidote if and when a user overdoses. But addicts also could get clean syringes and be directed to treatment and recovery programs -- part of a more holistic approach that deals with addiction more like a public health issue than a criminal justice problem.

"It's providing a safe place where they won't overdose, where they can get treatment," Svante said. "We're not going to encourage more people to use, it's just going to save lives and give them an opportunity."

There are similar facilities in Canada, Europe and Australia, but there are legal and political challenges in the U.S.

Myrick needs state permission to open a supervised injection site, and his proposal is certain to face significant opposition. Myrick said he will ask New York's Health Department to declare the heroin epidemic a state health crisis, which he said would enable his city to proceed without involving the state Legislature.

Once dismissed as a radical idea, injection sites are increasingly being discussed as a possible response to huge increases in overdose deaths nationwide. In New York state, overdose deaths involving heroin and other opiates shot from 186 in 2003 to 914 in 2012.

Ithaca alone had three fatal overdoses and 13 non-fatal overdoses in a three-week span in 2014, prompting city officials to begin looking at alternatives to simply jailing addicts.

Myrick backs a law enforcement strategy that prioritizes treatment over arrests.

"We have been trying this a certain way for 40 years, we've been treating this as a criminal problem instead of a health problem and that's been very expensive," Svante said. "We've built all these prison, we've locked up a lot of people."

The city of 30,000, which hosts Cornell University and Ithaca College, is considered one of New York's most liberal communities and is a prime candidate for new approaches, Myrick said.

Myrick first told the AP about his proposal ahead of a wider announcement planned for Wednesday.

State health officials haven't responded to a request for comment.

Canada's first injection facility opened in Vancouver in 2003. Every day, 800 users visit, and between 10 and 20 of them overdose each week, but no one has ever died there, according to Dr. Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer at Vancouver Coastal Health, which operates the "Insite'' facility.

"These overdoses are completely reversible,'' Daly said. "People die because they inject alone.''

Insite receives the bulk of its funding from government now, but faced significant initial opposition from officials in Ottawa. A 2011 Canadian Supreme Court decision ordered federal officials to stop fighting the facility, noting that it has saved lives "with no discernable negative impact.''

(TM and © Copyright 2016 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2016 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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