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ALBANY, New York — Today, elected officials, community members, civil rights and legal advocates, and drug policy reformers joined together to call for the inclusion of communities of color in Albany’s response to heroin and opioids. In the midst of the opioid crisis, lawmakers and the media have increasingly highlighted strategies that treat drug use as a public health issue. But despite the rhetoric, the overwhelming emphasis of New York drug policy remains on criminalization, which is disproportionately focused on people of color.

“Heroin abuse and its devastating effects is not a new phenomenon – we have seen how it has decimated poor communities and communities of color for decades,” said Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Jeffrion Aubry. “For years we have been calling for meaningful reform to address the issue – Rockefeller drug law reform was the first step. But now we must continue to march forward and pass additional policy reforms that focuses less on criminalization and more on a public health solution – a solution for ALL.”

New York, like much of the rest of the country, has begun to move away from criminal justice approaches to drugs amid a perception that more people who use drugs are now from white, suburban, and middle class communities. Despite this trend there has been little effort at the state level to repair the harms of the failed drug policies of the last 45 years that have devastated communities of color. New York’s draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws were a significant driver of mass incarceration, gross racial disparities, and disruption of New York families and communities.

While advocates and elected officials are encouraged by the renewed focus on issues around drugs and treatment, they warned that current proposals lack a comprehensive public health approach to drugs.

“We have learned through trial and error – and much unnecessary pain and suffering – that a public health model is the only smart and compassionate approach to addressing substance abuse and addiction,” said Robert Perry, Legislative Director with the NYCLU.  “And yet legislation pending in Albany adopts several misguided compulsory treatment provisions. Let’s not make the same mistakes we made with the War on Drugs – drug policy must be based on upon evidence-based medical science.”

“I’m angry! ‎I’m angry because harm reduction saved my life, yet the Senate Republicans have refused even the most basic reforms to expand syringe access,” said Terrell Jones, leader of VOCAL-NY, referring to the Senate’s last minute refusal to support legislation to reform the Expanded Syringe Access Program (ESAP). “And I’m angry that as a black man, when I was homeless and drug addicted, I was offered 4-9 years for my first offense and denied drug treatment while white boys awaiting sentencing with me were offered programs in place of prison.”

“There are visible racial disparities in drug charges. Unfortunately, individuals of color are more likely to be stopped, arrested and prosecuted for violating drug laws,” said Assemblywoman Diana Richardson. “It is essential that we continue to advocate for fair criminal justice reform.”

Elected officials and advocates called on the legislature to not only focus on increasing access to services but also work together to deal with the years of “lock them up” policies that have devastated communities throughout New York State.

“I applaud the Drug Policy Alliance and VOCAL-NY for standing up for marginalized communities that have for decades now been plagued and devastated by drug addiction and overdose.  Understanding that drug abuse in any community is a public health crisis is key, and ensuring equitable access to resources to fight this blight is vital and long overdue,” said Senator Kevin Parker. “When communities of color were initially overtaken by drugs and its negative externalities, the answer that was presented was a War on Drugs.  Today, I hope we learn from our predecessors failed policies and enact legislation that provides evenhanded relief to all communities impacted.  I remain eager to work with my colleagues in the Legislature to right this wrong.”

“As New York battles an increase in heroin and prescription opioid addiction, we must ensure that equal support and treatment is provided to everyone who needs it, regardless of race or economic status. For far too long, we have seen people of color, particularly young black men, serving unnecessarily long prison sentences, perpetuated by draconian drug laws,” said Senator James Sanders Jr. “We have an opportunity to affect change by introducing positive reforms across the state including improvements to public health policy and the criminal justice system. I look forward to joining with my colleagues in government to make these changes possible.

“The evidence becomes clearer every day that the old war on drugs is not working, is hurting communities and is destroying families,” said Juan Cartagena, President and General Counsel, LatinoJustice PRLDEF. “”We can’t incarcerate addiction out of people. It’s inhumane and ineffective. It is time for a sane policy, one that helps people and doesn’t ostracize them from society.”

Elected officials presented several legislative proposals that they believe will not only increase services to communities throughout New York but would also begin to reduce the harms associated with criminalization and the failing drug war.

“Instead of demonizing and punishing the communities of color affected by this epidemic, we need to treat addiction with drug treatment. Research has shown drug treatment is proven to be more effective at reducing crime and recidivism. Moreover, we need to provide pathway for former addicts to be reintegrated into society, said Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson. “Formerly jailed individuals are routinely denied access to jobs, housing, educational loans, welfare benefits, political participation, and other key social goods solely on the basis of their drug convictions. It is an alarmist attitude of a few who refuse to accept the notion that many of these former addicts have served their time and proven themselves worthy of a second chance.”

“Communities of color have been devastated by bad drug policies and hyper-criminalization for the last 40 years. It is an approach that has never worked and has caused significantly more harm than good to our communities and to our families. If we are going to be centering public health in our drug policy, then we need to do so now and we need to do it for all communities,” said Assemblymember Crystal People-Stokes. “We need to increase access to treatment but also alleviate the burden bad policies have had on people of color across the state, including the thousands of New Yorkers who are inhibited daily from accessing employment, housing and an education all due to a conviction on their record for simple possession of marijuana.”

“A public health crisis requires an inclusive public health response,” said Senator Daniel Squadron. “I’m proud to carry the Fairness & Equity Act that would introduce racial and ethnic impact statements. I thank DPA, VOCAL, the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Caucus, and my colleagues.”

“It is important for public health to protect possession of clean needles and possession of naloxone so that people don’t have to fear that they’re going to come under police scrutiny because they have naloxone in their pocket,” said Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard N. Gottfried.  “Heroin and opiate addiction have devastating effects and we must treat these as critical public health issues, addressed with harm reduction strategies, instead of criminalizing individuals and communities.”

“Decriminalizing syringe possession will give the most vulnerable New Yorkers access to the harm reduction services they need in order to avoid contracting HIV or Hepatitis C, said Senator Gustavo Rivera. “We can no longer stand by while ineffective and failed drug polices continue to unnecessarily put the health of New Yorkers at risk.”

Together advocates and elected called on the New York State legislature and Governor Cuomo to center repairing the harms associated with the drug war, in addition to ensuring an equitable distribution of public health resources to help all people in need.

“For too long communities of color have been plagued by the consequences of a broken legal system that has unfairly targeted certain neighborhoods, and created a drug policy that has done little to decrease drug use, said Assembly member Robert Rodriguez.   “New York needs a compassionate approach to opioid policy reform that works with individuals and communities to both heal and prevent the damage of widespread drug use, and continue to promote progressive police practices.”

“Not only must we learn from the mistakes of the past, we must take action to reverse the harms caused by racially motivated drug policy that for years prioritized incarceration and punitive measures over treatment and recovery,” said Assemblymember Linda B. Rosenthal, Chair of the Assembly Committee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. “It is crucial that we create policies to ensure that all people in every community that have been affected by addiction have access to comprehensive treatment and recovery supports and that we implement policies that confer justice and equality upon communities who for years have been deprived of it.”

“People in communities of color in New York are watching as new resources come to white communities to solve the heroin and opioid problem. Meanwhile, we continue to respond to drug use by increasing law enforcement presence and incarcerating huge numbers of Black and Brown New Yorkers, destroying whole communities and families,” said Kassandra Frederique, New York State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Without a doubt, the tragedy of anyone’s struggle with drug abuse should be met with a compassionate and humane response. What we are asking for today are two things:  first that the resources and compassion being extended to white communities is extended to communities of color and second that lawmakers acknowledge and redress the harms done to communities of color by the 45 year failed war on drugs.”

Legislative policy proposals include:

Date Published: June 8, 2016
Published by Drug Policy Alliance | VOCAL-NY