Buffalo, NY: Today marks the start of a major two-day conference in Buffalo to discuss ending the war on drugs and mass incarceration in NY – and establishing truly effective drug policies guided by public health and safety. The conference convenes almost 40 years to the day after Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The laws represented a criminalization-focused “lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key” approach to drug policy requiring long, mandatory prison terms for even first-time drug law violations. But the laws never achieved their stated intent, as health and safety outcomes were not substantially improved. Meanwhile the criminalization-based approach led to under-development of our prevention and treatment systems, mass incarceration, and extraordinary racial disparities.
The conference, Leading the Way: Toward a Public Health & Safety Approach to Drug Policy in New York
, brings together elected officials, law enforcement, treatment providers, prevention experts, healthcare providers, people in recovery, people who currently use drugs, family members of overdose victims, formerly incarcerated people, scholars, activists, and more. Over two days, attendees will discuss developing a new drug policy in New York, and will explore the changing landscape of drug policy in New York and the nation, such as the growing bipartisan opposition to mass incarceration and support for alternatives to incarceration; the implementation of the Affordable Care Act; and the 2012 elections, when Colorado and Washington became the first jurisdictions anywhere in the world to legally regulate marijuana.
The conference is informed by a comprehensive new report by The New York Academy of Medicine and the Drug Policy Alliance: Blueprint for a Public Health and Safety Approach to Drug Policy
. In an editorial last week, The New York Times called the report
“timely” and said it “provides a detailed blueprint for how the state could remake its drug treatment delivery system and remove public policy obstacles to timely and accessible treatment.” Attendees will discuss the report’s findings and recommendations.
New York is in prime position to lead the nation in a new direction. The draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws – signed May 8, 1973 – became the model for the failed “war on drugs” as states around the country adopted New York’s criminalization approach, leading the U.S. to incarcerate more of its own citizens than any other country in the world. New York reformed the Rockefeller Drug Laws in 2009, but as outlined in the Blueprint report, New York remains stuck in the “Rockefeller paradigm.” Now, in a historic shift unthinkable just a decade ago, leaders in New York, the White House, and many elected officials from both sides of the aisle agree that drug policies must shift toward a public health approach, reflecting 20 years of evidence and public opinion polls finding that more than three-quarters of Americans believe that the criminalization-focused “war on drugs” has failed.
Yet moving to a public health approach has proved to be easier said than done, as both federal and state budgets continue to emphasize enforcement, prosecution and incarceration.
Conference speakers – from around New York, the U.S., and the world – will discuss effective drug policies that have been implemented abroad. Speakers from Toronto and Vancouver will discuss how those cities utilize a “Four Pillars” model – prevention, treatment, law enforcement and harm reduction – and will share lessons and insights about municipal efforts to establish more effective drug policies. The Vice President of the Lisbon Dissuasion Commission of the Portugal Ministry of Health will discuss Portugal’s innovative drug policy, implemented in 2001. While drugs remain illegal in Portugal, there is no criminal penalty for possession or use of small amounts of drugs – an approach called “decriminalization.” Instead of criminalization, the country has pursued a policy of civil administration and service provision, coupling education with expanded treatment options, resulting in reductions in drug use, transmission of blood-borne illness, and drug-related crime.
Over two days, and with the Blueprint as a reference guide, conference participants will discuss evidence-based strategies for building a coordinated, health-focused approach to drug policy in New York that addresses prevention, treatment, harm, reduction, public safety, and racial disparities – so that New York can once again lead the nation, this time by implementing more effective drug policies.