A week after the 35th anniversary of the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws, the New York Assembly will hold the second of its unprecedented hearings to explore a public health approach to drug policy in New York. In a first-time development, the joint hearing will be convened by six different Assembly committees--Codes, Corrections, Judiciary, Public Health, Alcohol and Drug Addiction, and Social Services. This type of hearing has never been convened regarding issues surrounding the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
New York drug policy has been dominated by the Rockefeller Drug Laws for 35 years, with disastrous results which have been well documented. While the general consensus is that these failed laws should be scrapped, no effective alternative approach has been seriously considered by the New York Legislature. Under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, New York has been the national leader in racial disparities resulting from disastrous drug policies -- over 90 percent of those incarcerated under the laws are black and Latino, even though whites use and sell drugs at higher rates.
The joint hearings of the Assembly offer an opportunity for New York to become a national leader in coordinated, sensible, and effective drug policies based in a public health paradigm and guided by science, reason, and compassion. A public health approach focuses on saving lives and increasing community health and safety by developing programs that reduce the death, disease, and suffering associated with drug abuse and addiction.
A public health approach would create a new bottom line in New York. It will focus on saving lives and increasing community health and safety by fostering programs that reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C, and other blood-borne diseases, offer more overdose prevention programs, and a Good Samaritan policy that provides immunity to those that call 911 in the event of a drug overdose. It also would greatly expand harm reduction programs that have proven effective in reducing death and disease associated with drug use.
Two hearings were scheduled--Thursday, May 8, in New York City, and Thursday, May 15, in Rochester. These hearings signal a remarkable shift from the Assembly's traditional efforts to approach Rockefeller reform from the criminal justice perspective. At the May 8 hearing in New York City, hundreds of advocates rallied outside the hearings in support of scrapping the Rockefeller Drug Laws and advancing a public health approach to drug policy. Those rallying included people formerly incarcerated under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, family members, treatment providers, criminal justice reform advocates, and religious leaders and elected officials.
Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws mandate extremely harsh prison terms for the possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs. Supposedly intended to target major dealers (kingpins), most of the people incarcerated under these laws are convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses, many of whom have no prior criminal record.
Despite modest reforms in 2004 and 2005, the Rockefeller Drug Laws continue to deny people serving under the more punitive sentences to apply for shorter terms, and do not increase the power of judges to place addicts into treatment programs. Over 13,000 people are locked up for drug offenses in New York State prisons, representing nearly 22 percent of the prison population and costing New Yorkers hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
"My son did not benefit from the so-called reforms of 2004," said Cheri O'Donoghue, whose son, Ashley, was incarcerated for five years on a 7 -- 21 year sentence, on a first-time, nonviolent offense. "When do families like ours finally get justice? The Assembly's mandate is clear--the status quo has failed, and we need a new approach based in public health."
What: Historic Joint Legislative Hearing Calling for a Public Heath Approach to Drug Use and Abuse
When: Thursday, May 15, 10:30 a.m.
Where: City Hall Council Chambers, 30 Church Street, Room 302-A
Who: Six Assembly Committees will hear testimony from invited speakers. The speaker list has not been released, but those in attendance will include drug policy expert and Washington State Representative Roger Goodman; international addiction and methadone expert, Robert Newman, MD, MPH; former and current law enforcement; drug treatment specialists; formerly incarcerated people and their family members; and drug policy advocates such as Drug Policy Alliance, Families Rally for Emancipation and Equality, the Genesee Valley NYCLU, and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.