New York City Turns A Corner On Drug Policy: City Council Bill Would Harmonize Strategy
First of its Kind City Council Bill Would Create a National Model to Harmonize Drug Strategy Between Dozens of Departments and the Community
Bill Emphasizes Research-based Approaches to Promote Public Health and Safety and Reduce Negative Impact of Past and Current Policies
Building on debates that helped shape the last mayoral election, NYC Council Members Corey Johnson, Andrew Cohen, and Vanessa Gibson on Thursday introduced legislation to create an Office of Drug Strategy. Placed in city hall, the new office would be empowered to convene 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.
“Past and present ineffective drug policy has contributed to tragic and preventable mortality, crime and inequity here in New York City,” said Council Member Corey Johnson, Chair of the Health Committee. “The Office of Drug Strategy will combat these problems by enhancing evidence-based drug education and public health intervention efforts and the availability of medical, psychological and social services to those struggling with drug use.
"Through the coordination of the many agencies and offices that address the numerous facets of illicit and non-medical drug use, we can develop a forward-looking policy to stem overdoses and enhance rehabilitation,” Johnson said.
The office would be the first of its kind in the nation, and advocates say that it 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.
“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 gabriel sayegh, managing director of policy and campaigns at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). “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,” sayegh said.
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 100 percent increase in heroin overdose deaths in recent years. 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. Meanwhile, current enforcement strategies have led to gross racial disparities and eroded the trust between communities and law enforcement.
Advocates stress the de Blasio administration has already taken some important steps in the right direction, including major 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 the Office of Drug Strategy is the next logical step in ensuring further coordination among city agencies.
The Office of Drug Strategy 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 Office of Drug Strategy will develop a 21st century drug policy that enhances both health and safety.
“We’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t during the past 40 years,” said Matt Curtis, policy 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 NYC drug strategy office would be a path toward long-lasting improvements in individual and community health, as well as smarter policing strategies,” Curtis said.
The proposed Office reflects calls in the last few years 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.
"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. "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."
“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,” said Chair of the Committee on Public Safety, Council Member Vanessa L. Gibson. “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 innovative policies this office will bring to New York and the good it will do for our citizens,” Gibson said.
Photo of Council Member Corey Johnson: William Alatriste/Gotham Gazette