New York Policy Office 2016 Highlights

The Drug Policy Alliance is committed to bringing real reforms to New York State. As we enter 2017, we are reflecting on the significant progress we made in 2016 on reducing criminalization, centering public health, re-envisioning new approaches to old problems, and bringing more and more people to the table to talk about what commonsense policies around drugs could mean for our communities.

Here is a quick recap of some of our achievements as we look ahead to building our momentum for change this year.

Medical Marijuana

Our fight for medical marijuana in New York resulted in the start of the medical program in January 2016, but much more work remains before patients have true access. Our support and commitment to the success of the program is unwavering, and we are excited that the Compassionate Care NY campaign is now being managed and led by patient advocates.

This year, the campaign continued to push to expand patient access throughout the state. By collaborating with patient advocates, we issued a report on issues with the medical marijuana program and a set of recommendations for improving the program--many of which have now successfully been adopted by the NYS Department of Health. In 2016, we successfully amended regulations, which now allow nurse practitioners and physician's assistants to certify patients for medical marijuana. Additionally, through our advocacy, chronic pain was successfully added as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana, a huge victory for patients and boost for the program.

Enacting Marijuana Reform

Our efforts toward ending the marijuana arrest crusade continued in 2016. Despite these efforts, NYC low-level marijuana possession arrests increased from the previous calendar year. The change highlights the well-known fact that policy changes must be met with legislative action for those changes to be lasting.

The New York State Assembly acknowledged that reality when they voted in overwhelming support to seal the records of New Yorkers convicted of low-level marijuana possession. Their vote underscored both that New York State must stop these arrests and also the urgent need to do something to repair the harm that these arrests have caused.

Unfortunately, the Senate did not bring the bill up for a vote last session. We enter 2017 with a renewed commitment to passing this much-needed legislation to address the collateral consequences of these flawed arrests.

While we remain engaged in incremental work to end the arrest crusade and address the resulting collateral consequences, we also believe firmly that the best solution is ending marijuana prohibition entirely.

Learn more about our efforts to put New York on the SMART path to creating Sensible Marijuana Access through Regulated Trade and join the campaign here.

Preventing Overdose Fatalities, Saving Lives, Centering Health

In 2016, we worked alongside a strong coalition of progressive organizations to ensure that policy proposals put forth to combat the heroin epidemic were grounded in science and were not simply increasing criminalization – an approach we know does not work and has disproportionately targeted and devastated communities of color. We identified key elements that are essential to effectively countering the heroin epidemic, including decriminalizing syringe possession, allowing safe injection facilities in New York State, and provisions for treatment on demand – like increasing access to medication assisted treatment. In fact, this year was the first year in recent memory that there were no bills passed in the state to increase criminal penalties on drug possession.

As a result of our work in Ithaca and the media coverage that followed, advocacy around SIFs exploded around the country in 2016. This includes our work SIFNYC Campaign, which was bolstered by the Council issuing $100,000 to conduct a feasibility study of SIFs in New York City.

Developing Public Health-based Municipal Drug strategies

In 2014, DPA launched a Municipal Drug Strategy Campaign to assist localities that were interested in a new approach to dealing with drugs to implement change on a local level. In 2015, we worked closely with local partners and government officials in Ithaca to craft comprehensive drug policy reforms that center public health and safety.

As a result of that foundational work, in 2016 the city of Ithaca published The Ithaca Plan: A Public Health and Safety Approach to Drugs and Drug Policy, a report that outlines how the city can address the harmful effects of the drug war in their city. The Ithaca Plan is a culmination of community-led conversations for which we were proud to provide technical support. We will continue to work with local partners and Ithaca's local government to implement comprehensive drug policy reforms that center public health and safety.

Additional progress has also been made in the city of Albany, where our partner, the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice, is working with local law enforcement to implement a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program. Albany has now become the third jurisdiction in the nation to adopt LEAD as a result of countless conversations, education events, and building with local authorities and partners.

Reparative Justice

Conversations around how to end the heroin epidemic plaguing communities across our state and the country dominated the 2016 Legislative Session. We posit that this newly embraced, kinder approach to drug management has not grappled with undoing the harms caused by previous responses, including the hyper-criminalization of communities of color. Recognizing the dire need to repair the harms caused by decades of bad drug policies – and the urgent need for new approaches to dealing with drug policy issues – the New York Policy Office launched the Reparative Justice Campaign with a press conference and rally on the steps of the Capitol in Albany.

To further the conversation on the differential response to drug use, we hosted the White Faces, Black Lives: Race and Reparative Justice in the Era of a “Gentler War on Drugs” conference in October, 2016. This conference focused on the importance of centering drug policy reforms for and with those who have been most harmed, the power of white empathy and the politics of drug use, and the need to repair communities harmed by the war on drugs. If you missed the conference, videos of all the sessions are available online.

We will use this year to delve into reparative justice campaign, working with advocates who work in a variety of fields to explore the ways in which the war on drugs has affected their work.