I’ll never forget my one and only visit to a heroin shooting gallery.

It was my first summer of law school, and I was working at the Manhattan (New York County) District Attorney’s Office. It didn’t pay much; we were paid $100 a week, in crisp $100 bills handed out at the cashier’s window every Friday. Seriously.

The extra-curricular part of the job was the most interesting. We took a tour of the Medical Examiner’s Museum, not open to the public. Use your imagination as to what we saw there. We viewed an autopsy; the one I attended was of a guy found burned in a dumpster. I walked out on it.

But by far the most exciting part was my police ride-along. My law school friend and I randomly were assigned to the same patrol, West Harlem on a Friday night. The cops we rode with thought it was really funny to have two young Harvard Law School students with them that night, so they decided to show us a good time.

The cops organized, purely for our benefit, a raid on a shooting gallery in an abandoned tenement. They gave us strict instruction — there would be no lighting in the hallway we were going to run down, so stay close to them, and whatever we do, don’t touch the walls which were covered in bugs and filth.

Six or more patrol cars, sirens blaring and lights flashing, then sped the wrong way down some street, converging on the building. We ran out with the cops, and trust me, we stayed close to them and didn’t touch the walls.

We then ran up a back staircase and on either the second or third floor found the shooting gallery. There probably were 15-20 junkies shooing up heroin. When we all arrived, they paid us almost no attention. They didn’t run or try to get away; they just kept injecting themselves. One had overdosed, so the paramedics were called and they injected him with Narcan, which snapped him out of it. I asked the cops what would have happened it we didn’t show up, and he said the guy would have died and the other junkies would have thrown the body out the window and stolen his stash.

This is all a long-winded way of getting to this story about a proposal by the Mayor of Ithaca to set up a government-run heroin shooting gallery. Naturally I took an interest in the story since I live in Ithaca.

The concept is that bringing the junkies, of which there are many in central upstate NY (in addition to the Meth problem) in from the cold, both figuratively and physically, would help prevent overdoses and the spread of AIDS from dirty needles. It also might present opportunities for rehab.

This chart demonstrates the steep rise in Heroin overdoses:

Cody Derespina at Fox News reports, reports on the Ithaca proposal, Mayor wants to open supervised injection facility for heroin in NY city:

One upstate New York city is planning an unconventional approach to combating a growing heroin epidemic: Letting addicts shoot up on government property under the supervision of medical professionals.

Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick unveiled his controversial proposal to open a supervised injection facility during an interview with The Associated Press released Monday. The facility would provide a space for users to inject pre-purchased drugs with clean needles under the watchful eye of healthcare professionals who could, in theory, keep them safe and direct them to addiction services.

“My father was a drug addict. He split from the family when I was 5, 6 years old,” Myrick told the AP. “I have watched for 20 years this system that just doesn’t work. We can’t wait anymore for the federal government. We have people shooting up in alleys. In bathroom stalls. And too many of them are dying.” ….

The 28-year-old Democratic mayor has proposed what would be only the second supervised injection facility in North America. The only current one is in Vancouver.

I was quoted on some of the legal issues:

“The city would have to be sure it’s dotted all the legal i’s and crossed all the legal t’s before it gets into assisting the use of a narcotic,” said William Jacobson, a professor at Cornell Law School in Ithaca who also writes for the Legal Insurrection blog….

While drugs themselves wouldn’t be sold at an injection facility, they would be openly carried and used there, and staff would assist in the use of them. That immediately puts facilities in the crosshairs of the federal government. Title 21 of the Controlled Substances Act specifically addresses “maintaining drug-involved premises” as being “unlawful.”

Though the federal government has so far shown a general inclination to stay away from enforcing federal drug laws in states where marijuana has been legalized, heroin is an entirely different animal.

“Marijuana is so widely used – it’s considered, in effect, decriminalized in most places – that it’s a totally different situation talking about heroin,” Jacobson said. “It’s a major narcotic.”

“I think it opens up potential liability,” Jacobson said. “I would think the city would also want to check with its insurers to make sure if there’s a claim raised if someone is injured or overdoses the city is not liable. There are multiple levels of legal issues that have to be considered – putting aside the public policy issue of whether, in fact, this is a good thing.”

I have mixed feelings about such a location from a public policy perspective. The heroin scourge is real, I’m just not sure normalizing the use helps the problem.

[Featured Image source: NYT Video]