Ending the New Jim Crow: Mapping New Drug Policies in NYC

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November 19, 2013 - By gabriel sayegh

Earlier this month, New Yorkers elected the self-described progressive -- Bill de Blasio -- as mayor. Now, thanks to an innovative collaboration by foundations and community groups, New Yorkers are engaged in shaping the transition process for the new administration. Talking Transition is an "open conversation about the future of New York City," a space where New Yorkers can share their questions, stories and ideas for the City's future. Last Saturday at Talking Transition, New Yorkers gathered to map the future of NYC's drug policies, and the recommendations emerging from the town-hall style forum will be delivered to the new de Blasio Administration.

For years, New York's drug policies have criminalized health issues, failed to improve health and safety in our communities, and have led to serious problems, including mass incarceration, overdose deaths, fiscal waste, violations of civil rights and civil liberties and appalling racial disparities. Even after the recent reforms to the failed Rockefeller Drug Laws, drug policies in New York City and state remain guided primarily by the criminal justice system, where interventions often cause more harm than good.

But there is a growing consensus that the criminalization-focused war on drugs has failed. Last week, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman released a report analyzing NYPD's stop-and-frisk program. The analysis shows that low-level drug possession -- including marijuana possession --are among the top arrests resulting from stop and frisk. The report highlights both the collateral consequences resulting from the stops and arrests -- including threat of loss of employment, housing, student loans, and immigration status -- and the associated racial disparities.

Racial disparities were again highlighted in last week's New York Times, with reporter Jim Dwyer's uncommonly honest article about our broken marijuana policies. In the article, Dwyer describes how he purchased and delivered marijuana for sick people, noting that because he's white, he had little reason to be concerned about being stopped, searched and arrested, even though marijuana possession is the number one arrest in NYC. De Blasio has expressed support for reforming New York's broken marijuana policies.

"Plenty of white New Yorkers walk around with a small bag of marijuana in their pockets -- or a backpack, in Mr. Dwyer's experiment -- and never think twice about being stopped by the police and illegally searched," said Alfredo Carrasquillo, Civil Rights Organizer for VOCAL-NY. "But for Black and Latino youth, who are no more likely to use marijuana than whites, the constant threat of stop and frisk means that they can all too easily end up with an arrest record. This is just one example of our failed drug policies in New York City and state. There are better ways to prevent youth drug use, and Mayor-elect de Blasio has promised a new approach. We want to make sure that new approach is informed by everyday New Yorkers, especially those of us who are targets of drug war-related policing and violence."

NYC can take action now to address the harms caused by both drugs and bad drug policies. Cities in Europe and Canada, frustrated by the lack of provincial or federal action (sound familiar?) have developed municipal-based drug strategies that have proven more effective and have since become standard practices of good government. Saturday was the first of many discussions about developing a municipal-based drug strategy focused on enhancing public health and safety in NYC.

"New York City has the opportunity to develop the exit strategy for the failed war on drugs," said Kassandra Frederique, policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance. "Our City has all the resources to lead the country in developing a progressive model for effective, evidence-based drug policies, rooted in health and safety instead of social control and institutional racism. With the right leadership, we can bring coherency to our drug policies and reduce overdose fatalities, increase access to treatment and healthcare, reduce addiction rates, end racially biased policing, stop the criminalization of our youth, and save limited taxpayer dollars. That's what drug policy looks like after the war on drugs."

Follow Gabriel Sayegh on Twitter: www.twitter.com/_gabrielsayegh

gabriel sayegh is the New York State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

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