A small city mayor explains why safe drug injection sites are so effective

In my experience, people either immediately recognize the name of Harris Wittels, or they don’t at all. And that’s precisely what makes the comedian and former Parks & Rec writer’s death from addiction in 2015 that much more tragic.

4 years later, Wittels’ sister, Stephanie Wittels Wachs, has launched a new podcast series called “The Last Day” that explores the ongoing opioid epidemic in-depth and with astounding empathy. While many people have been affected by this problem, the solutions aren’t so readily apparent. Or, if they are, there are still stigmas around them that make it difficult to enact them on a larger enough scale.

In the 7th episode of the podcast, Wittels Wachs speaks with Svante Myrick, the 32-year-old politician who just won his third term as mayor of Ithaca, New York. Myrick speaks passionately and candidly about his own family’s history with addiction, and also about the potential benefits of safe injection sites—supervised spaces where people can go and freely use the drugs to which they are addicted. The idea is understandably controversial, particularly if you subscribe to the negative stereotypical assumptions about drug users. But, as Myrick explains, these safe injection sites have been shown to reduce deaths as well as crime.

If this sounds contradictory to you, well, then, I would suggest you listen to the podcast episode:

I’ll be honest: I’m not being completely objective here. My friend Matt overdosed and died in 2016. My wife also runs a professional theatre company in Ithaca, where Svante is mayor—and in 2018, I wrote a play about opioid recovery that was devised in collaboration with people in the Ithaca area who were transitioning out of prison and rehabilitation programs. They were some of the most compassionate and empathic people I’ve met in my life, and they opened my eyes not only to the realities of living with these addictions, but also how shame and stigma exacerbate those problems. The friends I made through this program spoke passionately the ways that things like safe injection sites can have a seriously positive impact on a rural community ravaged by painkillers. One of the men I met was also one of the first people in the state of New York trained to administer Narcan, the overdose reversal drug. He wasn’t a trained EMT, however—although EMTs weren’t always trained on Narcan either. But as a recovering addict himself, he still knew people in the community. They would call him whenever someone overdosed, and he would swoop in like a vigilante to administer the Narcan, then leave before the cops showed up and arrested them all.

That’s the kind of world we’ve been living in: one where saving lives can be a god damn crime. Something’s gotta change. And maybe safe injection sites are one place to start.

20,000 Fewer Funerals on The Last Day Podcast [Stephanie Wittels Wachs/Lemonada Media]

Image via Todd Huffman/Flickr