NYC Council Holds Hearing on Bill to Reorient Drug Policy Toward Health and Safety

Press Release June 22, 2015
Media Contact

<h2 class="subtitle">
<p>Jeremy Saunders, 917-676-8041<br />
gabriel sayegh, 646-335-2264</p>

New York, NY – As the New York City Council prepared to hold a hearing on legislation to reshape how the city deals with illegal drug use, advocates packed the steps of City Hall in support.

The bill would create an Office of Drug Strategy charged with coordinating policy and programmatic priorities across dozens of city agencies and collaborating with community organizations. While similar approaches exist in scores of Canadian and European cities, the New York City office would be the first of its kind in the U.S.

“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."

Under current policies, city agencies often work at cross-purposes, with conflicts arising between public health and law enforcement policies, and missed opportunities to provide support to people who use drugs in housing programs, the welfare system, family and homeless services, and the courts. Partly as a result, drugs are cheaper, more pure, and easier to obtain than ever, resulting in growing problems like the 100% increase in NYC heroin overdose deaths in recent years.

"I see a drug strategy office as creating a path toward solving some of the thorniest problems in health and public safety in New York City," said Council Member Corey Johnson, chair of the Committee on Health and a lead sponsor of the bill. "The war on drugs has produced a legacy of misery, corruption, and waste. This bill is a small step toward changing course and building a city where people get the help they need to be healthy, where drug-related violence no longer exists, and where poor communities and people of color are not arrested and incarcerated at exponentially higher rates than the wealthy and white."

“Drug use, addiction, mental health, and public safety are problems that are too complicated for any one city agency to solve,” said Council Member Andrew Cohen, chair of the Committee on Mental Health and a lead sponsor of the bill. “Creating an Office of Drug Strategy gives New York City an opportunity to make sure that every part of the system – from the health department, to homeless services, to the NYPD – is doing what it can to support people struggling with addiction.”

“For decades, New York has been a national leader in innovative, effective drug treatment, but for many in need we are failing to make sure the door to care is open,” said John Coppola, Executive Director of the Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Providers of New York State, which represents over 200 drug treatment, prevention, and recovery programs. “A mayor’s office of drug strategy could help ensure that wherever people with substance use disorders encounter city government, the first priority is their health and well-being.”

The idea is not new to New York, having been initially raised through a year-long exercise that consulted hundreds of experts across the state, and published jointly by The New York Academy of Medicine and the Drug Policy Alliance.

"Historically, the New York Academy of Medicine has supported a coordinated public health approach to drug policy,” said Angel Mendoza, MD, Director of Health Police with the New York Academy of Medicine. “Our Blueprint for a Public Health and Safety Approach to Drug Policy demonstrates how a 4-pillar model of prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and public safety can help communities to realize better health and public safety outcomes. Our support for Intro 748 is in line with this coordinated and evidence-based approach to drug policy."

Bronx Council Member and chair of the Committee on Public Safety Vanessa L. Gibson said that, “Through the creation of an Office of Drug Strategy, we will develop a unified drug strategy that provides New York with a coordinated effort to develop best practices for those who cycle in and out of prison on drug charges. By drawing on the expertise of diverse city agencies and community groups, we will build safer, healthier communities and allow the police the opportunity to focus on violence and other major crimes. I look forward to the innovation this office will bring to New York and the good it will do for our citizens.”

"A drug arrest leads not only to prosecution and incarceration, which is a horrendous, dehumanizing process in and of itself, but also to a multitude of devastating consequences for that individual and his entire family,” said Runa Rajagopal, Supervising Attorney for the Bronx Defenders. “There is a better way. The Bronx Defenders supports Intro 748 because it will address and reconcile our contradictory, punitive approach to what is actually a public health problem.”

“After nearly 45 years of a failed war on drugs, it’s time for a new approach, one grounded in health and safety instead of criminalization and racism,” said gabriel sayegh, Managing Director of Policy and Campaigns at the Drug Policy Alliance. “It’s not just New Yorkers who are ready for change – across the nation and across the political spectrum, there is a growing call to end the war on drugs and end mass incarceration. Intro 748 would fill a gap in New York’s existing innovative programs and practices related to drug policy. With some focused leadership and cross-sector collaboration, New York City can lead the country in developing drug policies grounded in science, health, compassion and human rights.”

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

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