New York Going to Pot

January 3, 2019 / News / Crime & Courts
New York Going to Pot

BY NATHAN RILEY

On or about April 1, New York will go to pot. That was the conventional wisdom at a well-publicized mid-December Albany conference on legalizing recreational marijuana. That assessment was quickly confirmed by Governor Andrew Cuomo himself.

Making pot legal will be a prime objective of his third term, and things can move lickety-split. A Democratic governor with progressive Democratic majorities in the Assembly and Senate could advance the bill in the state budget, due on the first day of April.

That would be proof positive that ending the partisan gridlock between the Democrats and Republicans in Albany will will bring change — fast.

Cuomo has decided that his way to greet a new era is to reform the criminal law, create a new industry, and discover new ways to bring money into the state for badly needed programs. Legal adult use is expected to create all these benefits.

In a December 17 speech, the governor previewed his plans for New York. The criminal justice agenda would “address the forms of injustice” that befall minority residents — both by legalizing marijuana and ending cash bail. Imposing cash bail on people too poor to have the money leads their families to becoming victims of extortion or forces them to plead guilty to charges that the wealthy could fight. There are, Cuomo charged, two kinds of justice — “one for the wealthy and one for everyone else.”

Marijuana has had an outsized importance in the criminal justice reform push. Legalization both unlocks a forbidden pleasure and is a gateway for ending mass incarceration, a major cause of black and brown poverty.

In New York State, about 64 percent of the black and brown prisoners come from seven New York City neighborhoods: “Harlem, and the Lower East Side in Manhattan, South/ Central Bronx, Bedford Stuyvesant, Brownsville, and East New York in Brooklyn, and South Jamaica in Queens.” These men are parents and their families suffer because the primary wage earner is locked in prison based on coerced pleas. City Comptroller Scott Stringer found that neighborhoods with the lowest household income had the highest marijuana arrests rates. The State Health Department concluded that the benefits of adult use in combating this crisis of community poverty outweighed the longstanding objections to marijuana legalization.

What remains unresolved is one of the most contentious issues in the discussion: Where will the revenues from taxing legal marijuana go? With a fast start, it is expected that legal pot could bring in hundreds of million in the first year and nearly a billion to state and local governments annually going forward.

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That optimism is based on using the State Liquor Authority to administer the program. The SLA already regulates bars, retail sales outlets, and distributors for alcoholic beverages. Marijuana is not expected to bring greater problems than those already presented by alcohol, and many supporters believe it will improve the quality of life for many users. The SLA is in a position to jump-start legalization.

The coalition that supports legal adult use brought hundreds of people to Albany on December 11 and 12 under the leadership of the Drug Policy Alliance, the George-Soros-funded group that has called for a new drug policy since Ronald Reagan was president and whose importance keeps growing. The group is attracting additional interest because it won’t back away from its view that ending stigma and offering health care to opioid users includes legal access to heroin in safer consumption facilities where they would have medical supervision. That perspective is based not on the view that drugs are “bad” but rather that their consumption should be integrated into the public health system, allowing people to use drugs in ways that reduce harm.

Switzerland and Holland offer users heroin-assisted treatment. In Switzerland, only a few people choose heroin. Most users choose buprenorphine or methadone, which are both available to New York users. The intriguing fact about Switzerland is that nobody stays on heroin forever; users taper off at their own pace. The opioid crisis in the US remains deadly: since 2010 more 20,000 New Yorkers have died from an overdose after buying drugs in the underground economy.

It’s the firm conviction of the Drug Policy Alliance that legalizing adult use of pot alone will not end the drug crisis.

Joining the DPA in the Marijuana, Justice, Equity and Reinvestment Conference were Jim Capolino + Company, representing many entrepreneurs interested in legal marijuana, and the Katal Center, a group dedicated to ending mass incarceration. Other members of the Smart New York Coalition include public defenders, farmers, parents and friends of people who overdosed, and the staff of many state legislators.

By the end of December, Mayor Bill de Blasio offered his endorsement of legal pot, adding to the momentum for change. But the mayor flatly opposed giving the SLA authority to regulate marijuana. Even though the city’s nightlife industry attracts visitors from across the globe, de Blasio’s report claims the SLA “severely limits the ability of New York City to respond to alcohol-related quality of life issues that arise at the community level.”

At the Albany conference, one theme received constant play: that allowing localities to control the rollout brings delays and forces supporters to reargue the question in town after town. Even in communities where voters overwhelmingly support legal weed, local towns councils around the country are voting to opt out of legal sales. In Royal Oak, Michigan,, according to the Detroit Free Press, voters approved legal pot by a 70 to 30 percent margin, only to see the city commissioners vote 4-3 to prohibit marijuana businesses.

The big battle in Albany might not, in the end, be over SLA control, but rather over how to use the money. Should it be returned to seven city neighborhoods where the poor have long found their lives criminalized or should it go into a general pot for the billions needed to rebuild the subways and public housing?

Updated 9:07 am, January 3, 2019 published at gaycitynews.com

Advocates Charge Homeless Shelters Lax in Supplying Narcan to Prevent Overdoses

first published on ManhattanExpressNews.nyc on Oct 5, 2017

BY NATHAN RILEY | Advocates for the homeless are pressing the City Council to mandate that shelter staff from the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) as well as their clients have ready access to medicine that reverses overdose poisonings, allowing the victim to breathe unassisted almost immediately.

Nobody disputes the need for making Narcan available at the shelters. Overdoses are the leading cause of deaths among the homeless. Minimal training is required; Narcan can be administered by a person after a single training session. Also known as Naloxone, it is sprayed into the nose and, in most cases, after one or two squirts normal breathing is restored.

Narcan use in city shelter facilities is up, according to records supplied by DHS.

“We support the HealingNYC goal” of “increasing Naloxone training,” said Isaac McGinn, the department’s spokesperson, referring to the city’s multi-agency effort at preventing opioid deaths .

Despite such assurances, Vocal-NY, the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project, and the Coalition for the Homeless are pushing for legislation to make this training mandatory for the staff at shelters and to require that their homeless residents be taught how to administer Narcan.

These advocates are angry because in their view the city is not making public health its priority in the battle again opioids. The NYPD receives the lion’s share of the new funding, with additional detectives hired and every overdose investigated as a potential homicide. For groups representing the homeless and others who use drugs, an approach based on actions after a person has died is callous. Users are at risk from overdosing, but it need not be fatal. Narcan will save their lives, and a public health approach based on prevention must be prioritized, advocates say.

The HealingNYC initiative was announced in March, and it calls for homeless shelters to make Narcan available. Public health experts see it as an indispensible tool in bringing down a death toll that reached a new record last year. In 2016, there were 1,374 overdose deaths in all settings citywide, a 46 percent increase over the previous year.

The bill advocates are pressing for was introduced on Jan. 17 by Bronx Councilmember Ritchie Torres, and its 22 co-sponsors include Upper West Side Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, East Councilmember Ben Kallos, and Health Committee Chair Corey Johnson from Chelsea. Despite the wide co-sponsorship, the measure has languished and was a bit player at an April 20 Council hearing.

Angered by the delay, advocates and residents from homeless shelters held a news conference on the steps of City Hall on Sept. 27 blasting both the Council and DHS.

“What have you been doing for nine months?” demanded Kassandra Frederique, the New York State director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Joshua Goldfein of the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project summed up the groups’ frustrations by saying there is “not a medical reason, not a legal reason, not a policy reason” to oppose Torres’ legislation.

Their complaints are being heard.

 

Councilmember Ritchie Torres’ office said he is negotiating the fine points of legislation he authored with DHS and expects his measure to pass this month. | Photo by Donna Aceto

Torres’ office said negotiations are proceeding with DHS about the legislation’s fine points, and he expects a bill will pass this month. McGinn, speaking for DHS, confirmed that agency officials “are collaborating closely” with the Council.

At last week’s press conference, shelter residents claimed that staff there are slow to respond to overdose incidents and prevent residents from using their own kits to reverse overdose crises.

Whatever may have happened in the past, DHS says it has adopted new procedures and has now trained all staff members. Shelter residents at City Hall last week, however, voiced skepticism about those claims.

With overdose deaths mounting across the city, DHS recently filled a long-time vacancy by hiring a medical director, Dr. Fabienne Laraque, a public health specialist with a background in HIV and hepatitis C prevention who formerly worked at the city health department. Laraque has taken the lead in training DHS police and staff in the use of Narcan, tapping medical school students from NYU late last year in “a massive effort” to get all agency staff up to speed on overdose prevention.

OD reversals are increasing at DHS shelters, with the agency boasting that it intervened successfully on more occasions in the first eight months of this year than in all of 2016 — 99 versus 97.

Each use of Narcan is reviewed the DHS medical staff, which can offer suggestions for follow-up. The agency may recommend, for example, that a homeless person who has called an ambulance for an overdosing partner be trained in the use of Narcan to enable immediate help if another incident arises.

The city health department’s goal is to have drug users, their friends, and families all have Narcan readily accessible. In addition to homeless shelters, needle exchange programs, the Harm Reduction Coalition, and Vocal-NY offer training in properly administering the medication.

According to health department statistics, overdose deaths among homeless New Yorkers rose 13 percent in 2016 over the previous year to 239, though most of those deaths occurred outside the shelter system. The city medical examiner has found that many of the deaths that occurred in shelters were due to multiple causes, such as a heart attack occurring along with an overdose.

DHS voiced confidence this week that its new procedures can reverse more than 90 percent of ODs among shelter residents. Those residents who joined advocates at City Hall last week, however, remain convinced that deaths are higher than acknowledged and that legislation is needed to make certain that Narcan is available when needed in every city shelter.