Blog Post

Two Major Drug Policy Reform Victories in California's New Budget

Eunisses Hernandez

Last month, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the 2016-17 state budget, which included two DPA sponsored budget requests: $3 million for community-based naloxone distribution and $15 million to establish up to three Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion [LEAD] pilots in California.

Naloxone, a medication that reverses an opioid overdose, blocks the effects of opioids, including heroin, methadone, or OxyContin, by reviving someone before they stop breathing and die. Since 2001, DPA has fought to push through legislation and budgets to expand drug overdose prevention in California, including funding for overdose prevention and recognition training and naloxone distribution.

Although DPA and allies have won several harm reduction legislative victories, including AB 1535 (2014) an important bill by Assembly Member Richard Bloom of Santa Monica to allow pharmacies to sell naloxone without a prescription, to date we had been unable to win fiscal support for overdose prevention.

Naloxone works best when used as soon as possible, so it’s important to get it into the hands of people who are most likely to be at the scene of an overdose: drug users themselves.  That’s why it is such big news that the California budget includes $3 million for naloxone distribution through the state Department of Public Health to community based organizations serving drug users. We are grateful for the leadership State Senators Holly Mitchell and Mark Leno, and Assemblymembers Tony Thurmond and Shirley Weber for this life-saving breakthrough.

Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) is a harm reduction based pre-booking diversion program developed in Seattle, WA. Established in 2011, LEAD diverts those suspected of low-level drug offenses and sex work to case management and supportive services instead of jail and prosecution.

In an evaluation by the University of Washington, people in LEAD were 58 percent less likely to be arrested than people not in the program, greatly reducing criminal justice system costs. Dozens of jurisdictions across the country are taking steps to implement LEAD, but California is the first to secure state level funding for LEAD pilots. $15 million from the State General Fund will be allocated to the Board of State and Community Corrections where it will be awarded in grants on a competitive basis to up to three jurisdictions to establish LEAD pilots over a period of three years.

The budget bill also authorizes the BSCC to spend up to $550,000 of the $15 million to evaluate the effectiveness of the LEAD pilots and to contract with experts in the implementation of LEAD. DPA worked closely with Californians for Safety and Justice, and Public Safety Budget Chair Loni Hancock, the State Senator from Oakland to win this important policy victory. Currently, there are LEAD pilots developing in the cities and counties of San Francisco and Los Angeles, and other jurisdictions that are likely to apply for the LEAD pilot grants.

These two victories are important parts of unraveling the war on drugs and the damage that it does to us, our families, and our communities. Together, they will help us save lives, keep families together, and make our neighborhoods safer.

Eunisses Hernandez is a policy associate with the Drug Policy Alliance.

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