De Blasio Dithers on Marijuana

BY NATHAN RILEY | Public officials in the city and state should suspend marijuana enforcement until Albany resolves the pressing question of legalization.

A new consensus is gaining momentum that the risks of marijuana can be controlled by public health measures. At its recent State Convention, New York State Democrats supported legal adult sales of recreational marijuana, declaring that weed is “is less harmful than alcohol and tobacco.”

Meanwhile, top health officials in New York City and New York State have endorsed a tax and regulate model for adult recreational use. It is a new era where health issues need no longer hinder legalization, and the debate centers on how to implement a new approach to marijuana.

Mayor’s supposed “advance” will still lead to arrests

In a report to Governor Andrew Cuomo made public last week, Dr. Howard Zucker, the state health commissioner, said he doesn’t subscribe to the theory that marijuana represents a gateway to harder drugs. Zucker’s conclusion has been widely held by other public health officials for years. The National Institute of Drug Abuse points to some rodent studies that indicate early use of marijuana could make the brain susceptible to an appetite for other drugs. Studies like this agree with epidemiological data that show that use of drugs in early adolescents is correlated with abuse as adults. But then there is a big qualifier here: “the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, ‘harder’ substances.”

Moreover, NIDA notes “cross-sensitization is not unique to marijuana. Alcohol and nicotine also prime the brain for a heightened response to other drugs.” This trio of drug are “typically used before a person progresses to other, more harmful substances.”

Given this pattern, NIDA offers “an alternative to the gateway-drug hypothesis.” Drug users “are simply more likely to start with readily available substances such as marijuana, tobacco, or alcohol, and their subsequent social interactions with others who use drugs increases their chances of trying other drugs.” You choose friends you are comfortable with and, in turn, you have shared activities.

From this perspective, the longstanding war on pot is not justified; use of marijuana may have a link to other drug use later in life, but it doesn’t necessarily cause it. Arrests are unwarranted, particularly given the high likelihood that legalization is on its way, but Mayor Bill de Blasio remains stubbornly resistant to this new reality.

With a great flourish, he recently announced that smoking in public would be greeted with a summons not arrests, arguing he was making a real concession.  But other member of the Democratic Party and advocates blasted his proposal.

The chairs of two criminal justice committees in the City Council joined advocates June 20 on the steps of City Hall attacking the mayor’s plan. Their critique burst de Blasio’s hopes of appearing progressive; the plan, they said, represented only the smallest of steps forward.

Queens Councilmember Rory Lancman, who heads up the Committee on the Justice System, blasted the mayor’s plan on the steps of City Hall and in a statement, saying, “No one should be arrested for smoking marijuana, period.” Calling the new plan a sham, he noted that a speeding ticket is a civil summons, but that de Blasio’s action on marijuana involves a criminal summons.

“The mayor’s policy does not attempt to reduce criminal summonses at all, still allows arrests in circumstances that cannot be justified by public safety,” Lancman said.

Then, in a thrust that must hurt a mayor whose political persona is defined by opposition to all forms of discrimination, Lancman predicted the plan “will likely make marijuana policing even more discriminatory toward people of color, continues to expose noncitizens to deportation, and takes no steps to eliminate the collateral consequences which are in the city’s control.”

Joining him was another Queens councilmember, Donovan Richards, who chairs the Committee on Public Safety that oversees the NYPD, as well as Brooklyn Councilmembers Antonio Reynoso and Jumaane Williams, the latter of whom is challenging Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul in the September Democratic primary and is aligned with Cynthia Nixon’s gubernatorial bid.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer, a likely candidate for mayor in 2021, joined the demonstrators, saying “too many live have been ruined, too many people of color have been targeted.” As he left the speaker’s podium, he reminded everyone that he is “the money guy. If you will legalize, you will actually create a $3 billion dollar industry” and tens of thousand new jobs. With more revenue, he said, “you will have an opportunity to invest more in the community.”

Kassandra Frederique, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, called for a “clear-cut policy saying no arrests, no justification for putting people into the criminal system — period.”

Public defenders, organizations representing minority youth like Make the Road New York, and drug reformers like VOCAL-NY also stressed that New York must stop relying on criminal penalties.

Under the mayor’s plan, anybody stopped for marijuana who is not carrying identification can be arrested and fingerprinted and that could lead ICE to identify them for deportation, Legal Aid Society lawyers argued.

According to de Blasio, his plan will make things better because there will be fewer arrests.

But he avoids a basic ethical question. If marijuana will be legal in eight or nine months, how can enforcement be justified now? Campaigners for legal marijuana are eager to avoid any arrests for a drug that is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco. Keeping young people’s records clean means they can can qualify for better jobs and increase their earning potential — a factor particularly salient in low income neighborhoods and communities of color. This is one piece of the argument that legalization will be good for the state’s economy.

The case against arrests is implicit in the Democratic Party’s recent resolution. “Marijuana laws have not had a significant impact on marijuana availability,” the statement reads. If the law fails to curb use, then no individuals, much less poor black and brown youth, should be criminally punished in a futile exercise. That is why enforcement should be suspended and the Legislature be given time to create a new policy.

The mayor’s “advance,” meanwhile, continues major injustices. As Gothamist headlined its story about de Blasio’s announcement: “NYPD Will Stop Arresting SOME People For Smoking Pot.” Among those who will be arrested are parolees. It is hard to think of a crueler outcome for getting high than going back to prison after enjoying freedom. In fact, according to the Daily News, some federal judges are refusing to play along with this. Judge Jack Weinstein, a liberal lion on the federal bench in Brooklyn, made the news with “a remarkable 42-page ruling explaining why he would not send 22-year-old Tyran Trotter back to prison for three years — longer than his original sentence! — for smoking pot, a technical violation of his post-release terms,” according to the Daily News.”

In his years as mayor, de Blasio has displayed an uncanny talent for isolating himself politically. His ties to the drug reform movement were already frayed by his long delay in supporting safer consumption spaces that offer medical support to drug users during their time of greatest peril in the minutes after they inject. His months-long stall on the issue is now being followed by Cuomo’s own foot-dragging in giving the state’s go-ahead.

If de Blasio were to advocate for complete suspension of marijuana law enforcement pending action in Albany, he would become a leader with a national constituency and polish his fading progressive image. Instead, he is allied with the police, which will always show more loyalty to Cuomo than to him in any event. At a time when the mayor needs allies and a chance to reignite the initial enthusiasm he stirred, he is increasing his troubles by standing pat rather than making a bold move forward.

This article was posted on GayCityNews.com on July 19, 2018

State Health Commish Gives Pot a Go

A report from Dr. Howard Zucker, the state health commissioner, has blessed the legalization of marijuana. | NYS DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH

BY NATHAN RILEY | In a report that will be read by public health officials across the country, the New York State Health Department has declared that legalizing marijuana would bring positive benefits; the “pros outweigh the cons,” opined Dr. Howard Zucker, the state health commissioner.

The report, which went public last week, makes it clear that legalization will improve health outcomes. After reading the report, it would be easy to conclude pot smokers are no different from the rest of the population. The report emphasizes that consumer safety will improve with laboratory-tested pot, its potency carefully labeled and customers able to pick the plant that brings the most satisfaction. Here health and pleasure form a useful synergy, and regulations reduce risks.

The risk that an emancipation effect will spur a sudden surge in use is low. By age 18, 52 percent of New Yorkers have tried marijuana. Under the current system, there is no shortage of supply, and the report suggests that limiting sales to licensed stores will make it more difficult for those under 21 to find pot.

Dr. Howard Zucker’s report finds improved health outcomes, economic benefits

Current law fails to restrict supply, and that means arresting users and suppliers accomplishes little. The report implies pot busts are cruel and pointless.

Sustaining these penalties are scare stories about marijuana that create fear but lack merit. A big lie is enshrined in federal law; it declares marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug with “no medical use” and a high potential for abuse. The problem of abuse can better be addressed after legalization when its use will be regulated. The report expresses the hope that legalizing pot will reduce the use of opioids.

Some studies have indicated that in places with medical marijuana there are fewer opioid overdose deaths. New York State has seen a 180 percent increase in overdose death between 2010 and 2016 to more than 3,000 a year, and every year more people die than the year before.

Occasionally a dry wit is displayed in Zucker’s report. During a discussion about marijuana causing a loss of motivation, it is described as a “temporary transient state,” not a permanent condition. Findings like these lead to the conclusion that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and undermine the rationale for its prohibition under federal law.

The exaggerated claims about harm from marijuana have been accompanied by a vicious enforcement policy. “Statewide, New York’s marijuana arrest rate of 535 arrests per 100,000 people was the highest of any state in 2010 and double the national average” with 103,698 arrests for possession, according to the report.

“The impact of low level marijuana offenses extends” beyond expenditure of criminal justice resources, the report notes. “Individuals who have a criminal record often face challenges throughout their lives.” It disproportionately criminalized black and brown residents. In 2017, the problem persisted, the reporting finding that “86 percent of the people arrested for marijuana possession in the fifth degree in 2017 were people of color; 48 percent were Black, and 38 percent were Hispanic. Only nine percent were White.” And the black and brown defendants received tougher punishment than whites.

Strikingly, “It is rare that these arrests lead to the discovery of guns or violent crimes,” the report stated.

And arrests have a health impact: Arrests and incarceration disrupt families, hindering access to education and health care, and increasing poverty “particularly in low-income communities of color where arrests are concentrated despite equivalent rates of marijuana use across racial groups,” the report stated. “Incarceration of family members destabilizes families and is considered an adverse childhood experience (ACE).” Incarceration also has “an impact on community health in many areas (including teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections).”

Legalization will bring improvements in community health for low-income neighborhoods, the report concluded.

To rectify past harms, the report recommends that “NYS expunge the criminal records of individuals with marijuana-related offenses.”

Meanwhile, developing tests for driving while using marijuana will improve once tax revenues from pot sales can finance this research.

Legalization will create a new industry in New York State. The report estimates that at “an average retail price of $270 per ounce, the market for marijuana is estimated to be approximately $1.7 billion; at $340 per ounce, the market is estimated to be approximately $3.5 billion.” Estimated tax revenues could fall between $248 million and $677 million, but the goal of raising taxes conflicts with the public policy imperative of ending the illegal market. The more expensive legal marijuana is, the greater the likelihood that the unregulated market will continue.

Preliminary data from Colorado suggests that legalization did not bring “statistically different” vehicular crash rates — though studies of marijuana impacts on traffic accidents are funded only sporadically and the data is imperfect.

The State Health Department’s “Assessment of the Potential Impact of the Regulated Market in Marijuana for New York State” argues that legalization improves public health and recommends that its licensing be separate from alcohol and tobacco. The details are not spelled out in the report but will be debated during the coming year. Health is no longer the issue; the hows and wheres are what are left to be decided.

This article was added to GayCityNews.com on July 19, 2018

De Blasio Moves on Safer Consumption Spaces to Curb Overdoses

BY NATHAN RILEY | A multi-year push in New York City to offer drug users a safe place for consuming their drugs seems destined for success after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his support for “overdose prevention centers.”

Public health advocates voiced enthusiasm as the news spread on May 3 that the administration had reached out to Dr. Howard Zucker, the state health commissioner, for a go-ahead to open four Safer Consumption Spaces in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn.

Brooklyn City Councilmember Stephen Levin, the chair of the General Welfare Committee who was arrested the day before in a sit-in on Lower Broadway opposite City Hall to push de Blasio to act, tweeted: “Where others look down upon our most vulnerable we will show love and a path towards recovery.”

Thanking the mayor, Levin added, “This will save lives.”

After months of protests, mayor rolls out plan with significant political, health institution support

De Blasio’s action came in the wake of a city health department study of this approach toward curbing drug overdoses funded by the City Council in 2016 and completed this past December.

The mayor set conditions that likely will easily be satisfied. He sought support from the city’s district attorneys, and Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Jr., and Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez immediately signaled their endorsements via Twitter.

“In the midst of an overdose crisis, we cannot sit by and let ppl die when there are proven interventions that can save live,” Gonzalez wrote, while Vance said, “We are proud to support the Mayor’s proposal to establish Overdose Prevention Centers. Thanks for your leadership.”

Darcel Clark, the Bronx DA, has held meetings on the intervention but remains hesitant unlike her peers, saying only that she has an “open mind.” Clark faces the voters for reelection in 2019, while Vance and Gonzalez won four year terms this past November.

In a written statement, Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker who initially pushed the proposal in 2016 when he chaired the Health Committee and got $100,00 put into the budget to have the health department carry out the study, said, “We thank Mayor de Blasio for taking this brave, important, and necessary step.”

Johnson, who is gay and HIV-positive, often expresses sympathy for those who have died from drug overdoses, mentioning his own history with alcohol and drug use, from which he has been in recovery for years.

“Too many people have died from opioids and heroin,” he said. “These sites will save lives and connect addicts with treatment options and trained professionals that could lead them to recovery. This is an issue that has deep personal significance to me.”

The US Justice Department has issued quasi-official opinions that Safer Consumption Spaces are illegal, but the mayor, by establishing the sites as temporary research programs, believes Zucker has the legal authority to approve their operation.

In the de Blasio administration’s letter to Zucker, Dr. Herminia Palacio, the deputy mayor for health and human services, asked “for immediate steps under Public Health Law to license a pilot research study.” The license would “include the possession of controlled substances.” She cited as precedent the pilot research that authorized needle exchanges whose distribution of sterile syringes brought dramatic reductions in new HIV infections among injection drug users.

In examining the city’s request, Zucker can count on the strong support of Chelsea State Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, who chairs the Health Committee.

“The Mayor’s announcement is an important step and a testament to the hard work of public health advocates on this issue,” Gottfried said in an email to Gay City News, adding, “Supervised injection facilities are an effective harm reduction strategy and a place where people can be connected with appropriate health care and social services.”

A letter to de Blasio from Charles King, president of Housing Works, the AIDS services group, demonstrates the quiet persuasion — that was coupled with loud protests from advocates, as well — that got city leaders behind this project. King was writing in his capacity as chair of Research for a Safer New York, Inc., a consortium of syringe exchanges that have found themselves treating overdoses and assisting clients who have injected in their facilities’ bathrooms.

This consortium will be the contractor managing the overdose prevention centers, with Dr. Holly Hagan, an epidemiologist at NYU, overseeing the research effort. NYU has agreed to have its Institutional Review Board evaluate the study design.

The mayor acted after the four city councilmembers where the initial four overdose prevention centers will be sited had already endorsed the idea. Johnson and Levin, in particular, had voiced considerable frustration with de Blasio’s slow pace of acting on the issue.

In Upper Manhattan, the Washington Heights Corner Project has agreed to sign a contract with the consortium. Liz Evans, a founder of the Vancouver Needle Exchange in Canada that opened in 2003, is on staff there. Mark Levine, the chair of the City Council Health Committee and a supporter of SCS, represents the district that includes the Corner Project.

St. Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction, where this writer was formerly chair of the board, participated in the Bronx Opioid Community Summit on April 21. At the meeting, Councilmember Rafael Salamanca, who represents the district where St. Ann’s is located, gave a moving talk about growing up in the Bronx where drug use was common and visible. He emphasized the opportunity to bring change to people’s lives through love and compassion. His remarks, which included his endorsement of Safer Consumption Spaces, drew a standing ovation.

The other participating needle exchanges are run by Housing Works, in Midtown West, in Johnson’s district, and VOCAL-NY, which has space within walking distance of Atlantic Avenue-Barclay Center subway complex. Levin is the councilmember for that district.

In testimony before the Council’s Budget Committee in February, Dr. Mary Bassett, the city health commissioner, said the scientific evidence that these facilities stop fatal overdoses is “clear.”

Drug users, especially those taking opioids, frequently overdose, but in Safer Consumption Spaces they receive assistance in breathing with doses of naloxone, a public health wonder drug. A plastic nozzle is used to squirt the medication into a user’s nostril and the opioid is inhibited and normal breathing is restored. In Safer Consumption Spaces worldwide — located in more than 100 cities — there have been no reported fatalities.

In upstate Ithaca, Mayor Svante Myrick and the City Council have already approved a Safer Consumption Space. Philadelphia and San Francisco are also moving forward on this approach, though no such facility is yet in operation in the US.

According to Politico, the number of overdose deaths in New York City hit a record 1,441 in 2017, with 80 percent of them from opioids.

Even as Housing Works’ King lauded de Blasio, he expressed frustration about how long it took to get to this day.

“Housing Works is thrilled that Mayor de Blasio has stepped up to do the right thing, and given the skyrocketing rates of overdose in New York City, we only wish this administration’s support for an intervention that we have long known to save lives had come sooner,” he said in a written statement, adding, “One thing we have learned from years of fighting the AIDS epidemic is that harm reduction works.”

This article was posted on GayCityNews.com  on May 4, 2018