City Council Passes Bill to Coordinate Drug Strategy Between Dozens of Departments and the Community

Press Release April 13, 2017
Media Contact

Tony Newman (646) 335-5384
Kassandra Frederique (646) 209-0374

New York, NY – The NYC Council recently passed legislation to create a coordinated municipal drug strategy, just as NYC experienced 9 overdoses in a 24-hour span, highlighting the urgent need for the City to face the opioid crisis with innovative approaches. The bill empowers the Mayor to designate a lead agency or office to convene stakeholders including city agencies, outside experts, and communities impacted by drug use to develop a city-wide, health-focused plan for a coordinated approach in addressing issues related to drug use.

Under current policies, city agencies often work at cross-purposes to address drug related issues, with conflicts arising between public health and law enforcement policies. Agencies also often miss opportunities to provide support to people in housing programs, the welfare system, family and homeless services, and the courts who have problematic drug use. Recognizing that, NYC Council Members Corey Johnson, Andrew Cohen, and Vanessa Gibson introduced municipal drug strategy legislation in April 2015.

The agency responsible for overseeing the municipal drug strategy, which is yet to be determined, would be responsible for convening multiple stakeholders – including community groups – to evaluate past and current drug strategies and develop a new, coordinated approach. By examining the harms caused by both drugs and our policy responses to drugs – like the drug war – NYC’s municipal drug strategy will reflect twenty-first century drug policy that enhances both health and safety.

Advocates expect the municipal drug strategy will engage with best practices and implementation for innovative improvements in individual and community health, including:

Advocates say this level of coordination around a city’s drug policies could be a model for how American cities can begin to unwind devastating drug war policies. New York lags far behind dozens of other cities, notably in Europe and Canada, that began developing coordinated municipal drug strategies in the late 1980s. That approach has led to significantly lower rates of drug use, crime, and public disorder and improved public health outcomes, such as reducing rates of HIV/AIDS and overdose deaths, compared to New York.

“I know firsthand why we need an Office of Drug Strategy, dedicated to creating alternatives to our city’s failed drug policies,” said Shantae Owens, a member of VOCAL New York. “When I was arrested for possessing a small amount of drugs, I was homeless and drug addicted, selling drugs just to support a habit. I was offered a prison sentence instead of treatment, which was a waste of my life and our tax dollars. New York City can and should be a national role model for how we can end drug war policies and replace them with policies of justice and equity, and politics of compassion and love.”

After 40 years of the war on drugs, drugs are cheaper, more pure, and easier to obtain than ever, contributing to growing problems like mass incarceration and the increase in heroin overdose deaths in recent years—NYC experienced more than 10,000 unintentional drug poisoning deaths between 2003-2015. Meanwhile, current enforcement strategies have led to gross racial disparities and eroded the trust between communities and law enforcement.

“Too often city agencies have worked at cross purposes in their interactions with individuals and families affected by drug use,” said Peter Schafer, Deputy Director for Family Health & Disparities, The New York Academy of Medicine. “We hope to see a more supportive and less punitive approach coordinated across city agencies so that people who use drugs are assisted in improving their health and well-being, rather than feeling forced to hide their drug use issues for fear of negative repercussions from various city agencies.”

The de Blasio administration has already taken some important steps in the right direction, including reforms to low-level marijuana policing and the summons system, and initiatives to pilot criminal justice diversion for people with mental illness and other conditions. The creation of a municipal drug strategy is the next logical step in ensuring further coordination among city agencies and those directly impacted by the war on drugs.

“We’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t during the past 40 years,” said Alyssa Aguilera, co-executive director at VOCAL New York, a grassroots political group. “Innovation based on rigorous evaluation is already happening as cities recognize that an overwhelmingly law enforcement focused approach is only making drug related problems worse, but reform has been slow and piecemeal. A coordinated drug strategy in NYC will be a path toward long-lasting improvements in individual and community health, as well as smarter policing strategies.”

The new municipal drug strategy guidelines reflect the need for innovation to tackle the current opioid overdose crisis and many years of calls from New Yorkers for a new approach. In 2013, the New York Academy of Medicine and the Drug Policy Alliance co-published a groundbreaking report, Blueprint for a Public Health and Safety Approach to Drug Policy, based on consultations with 500 New Yorkers, which called for a coordinated approach grounded in science. And in 2014, as part of the Talking Transition open tent process, VOCAL-NY and DPA led a town hall assembly about drugs with 200 New Yorkers, where a primary recommendation was an Office of Drug Strategy.

“This bill is an important step in adopting a more rational approach to drug policy in this City – one grounded in science, health, human rights, and principles of harm reduction,” said Kassandra Frederique, New York State Director at the Drug Policy Alliance. “We know the war on drugs has failed, and it’s time for a new plan. With a comprehensive and coordinated municipal drug strategy, NYC can lead the nation in improving public health and safety by reducing the morbidity, mortality, crime, and racial disparities stemming from failed practices.”

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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