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

Safe Consumption Delay Prompts City Hall Sit-In

BY NATHAN RILEY | Chanting “no more overdoses,” 75 angry New Yorkers packed the steps of City Hall on April 5 and then a smaller group staged a sit-in at the gates leading to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, forcing police to eject them. The demonstrators were making an emotional plea to the mayor that he release a feasibility study about safe consumption facilities that give drug users medical supervision while they are getting high.

In such spaces, users consume product they buy on the street under the watchful eye of an overdose prevention worker. Should a user slip into unconsciousness, these workers are only steps away and can administer naloxone, a public health wonder drug that reverses overdoses and restores normal breathing. There have been thousands of overdoses at such facilities in cities like Frankfurt, Sydney, and Vancouver, but nobody — as in zero — has ever died.

On February 5, Dr. Mary Bassett, the city health commissioner told a City Council budget hearing that “the public health literature is clear.” Despite that definitive statement, de Blasio has kept the health department study under wraps. Yesterday’s City Hall protesters charged that in the 59 days since Bassett’s testimony, there have been approximately 236 overdose deaths in New York.

Advocates demand de Blasio release study of facilities where drug users have medical support

Charles King, the CEO of Housing Works, an AIDS services group, opened the protest on a personal note.

“Today marks the 14th anniversary of the death of Keith Cylar, one of the co-founders of Housing Works and my life partner for some 15 years,” he said.

Then adding that he was speaking “not just on behalf of people living with AIDS and HIV, but also on behalf of people who use drugs,” King said, “Keith spoke with particular passion and urgency. He was not only a black gay man living with AIDS, he was also addicted to drugs his entire adult life. And whether it was long-term degeneration caused by AIDS or long time use of cocaine that caused his cardiomyopathy, and whether the heart attack would have happened anyway or was triggered by the crack he smoked that night, his death certificate says he died of a drug overdose. I will go to my grave knowing that if someone had been with him at that moment who knew how to intervene, he might well be standing here with us today.”

Also in impassioned remarks, Kassandra Frederique, the New York State director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said, “Safe consumption spaces are critical to saving lives. We don’t need a report to tell us what we already know, what we need is leadership.”

The mayor, she added, isn’t “leading the parade, he’s following it.”

As other speakers addressed the crowd, King and about a dozen others went inside City Hall and tried to enter de Blasio’s suite of offices. When refused at the gate leading to the mayor’s wing of the building, they sat down chanting “no more overdoses.” Police approached a limp Charles King and, with some difficulty, dragged him out of the building. Some others among the demonstrators were also carried out, while some stood up on their own. Police made no arrests either inside or out, and the rally on the steps lasted an hour and a half.

The mayor, arriving at City Hall in the middle of the demonstration, decided against walking through the protest.

Housing Works CEO Charles King being dragged out of City Hall by police after staging a sit-in. | JARON BENJAMIN/ HOUSING WORKS

In 2016, Corey Johnson, an out gay city councilmember who then chaired the Health Committee and is now Council speaker, put a $100,000 appropriation into the health department budget to pay for the safe consumption space feasibility study, at a time when overdose deaths in the city had reached 1,300 a year, more than the combined total from vehicle accidents, homicides, and suicides.

King said the report was finished in December, but the mayor has so far declined to release it publicly.

In an email, Johanne Morne, director of the AIDS Institute in the State Department of Health, said flatly, “Safe Consumption Spaces have shown success in other countries.” The idea, she continued, should be “an item of consideration” for “interventions in response to the opioid epidemic.”

In a strongly argued editorial in February, the New York Times declared the safe consumption space approach a “rigorously tested harm-reduction method” that has “proved incredibly effective at slashing overdose deaths.”

Councilmembers Mark Levine of Manhattan, chair of the Council Health Committee, and Stephen Levin of Brooklyn, chair of the General Welfare Committee, support the program.

The citywide coalition of treatment providers, medical professionals, and harm reduction activists are boiling over with anger at a delay that prevents drug users from gaining timely access to a life-saving medicine.

A drug user overdosing is helpless and depends on another person to help them regain normal breathing. Safe consumption spaces are specifically designed to meet this emergency and also allow health professionals to begin a constructive engagement with users about other means of reducing the harm caused by their drug habit.

This was posted on GayCityNews.com on April 6, 2018

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.

City Shelters to Guarantee Overdose Prevention Staffing

first published on ManhattanExpressNews.nyc Nov 16, 2018

BY NATHAN RILEY | A measure approved by the City Council on October 31 guarantees that homeless shelters across New York will be staffed by people trained to prevent fatal overdoses.

Three years ago, drug overdose became the leading cause of death among the homeless. The new legislation expands the city’s public health commitment to reduce fatal ODs. The bill, sponsored by Ritchie Torres, an out gay councilmember from the Bronx, requires that employees at city shelters and those at non-profit providers who operate single-room-occupancy hotels under contract with city agencies, such as the HIV/ AIDS Services Administration (HASA), be trained in the use of naloxone, which is sold under the brand name Narcan.

Facilities serving opioid at-risk populations must train staff, residents in Narcan use

Torres told the Council that his bill “will save lives. The city will be required to train shelter providers and shelter residents in the administration of naloxone, which has been shown to reverse, in real time, the impact of an otherwise fatal opioid overdose.”

The device is injected into a person’s nose and sprays an opioid antagonist that revives a person’s breathing. The device is designed for use by lay persons and can be used after just one training session.

The new local law requires that in every city shelter and single-room-occupancy hotels under its jurisdiction there be at least one trained person on duty at all times. It is expected that training will be offered to many shelter employees to ensure that a trained staff member is always on duty.

The legislation expands existing programs and represents an extensive collaboration among advocates for the homeless, including VOCAL-NY and Torres. In an emailed statement, city Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks offered an upbeat assessment of the new measure, writing, “This legislation would take our comprehensive training efforts even further, expanding preparedness programming to additional facilities and offering new training opportunities to clients.”

Under the law, homeless shelter and SRO residents will also be trained in the use of Narcan, something that VOCAL-NY, which works directly with the city’s drug-using population, hailed as a step forward in public health responsiveness.

Jeremy Saunders, co-executive director at VOCAL-NY, was ebullient in telling Gay City News, “Passage of 1443 would not have been possible without Councilmember Ritchie Torres and Commissioner Steve Banks. But most importantly, it took shelter residents telling their stories and demanding that they be included into the legislation.”

Saunders then praised several homeless New Yorkers who pressed the importance of training shelter residents themselves in the use of Narcan, saying, “Thanks to people like Stevie Weltsek, Sarah Wilson, Jeffery Foster, and many others, the law was expanded to include the training of shelter residents and reporting to ensure it is really happening.”

Banks echoed that message, saying, “We remain committed to continuing to empower more New Yorkers to be overdose first responders, ready to save lives.”

Public health prevention of overdose deaths depends on wide distribution of Narcan kits so that a user gets immediate help from others during a crisis. During an overdose episode, breathing is suppressed and while waiting for an ambulance a person might suffocate. The city health department has long encouraged ordinary New Yorkers to become overdose first responders. This legislation creates a framework for helping drug users to help themselves in preventing fatal overdoses.

In his remarks to the Council, Torres summed the issue up saying, “One need not be a doctor to administer naloxone, and one need not be an emergency responder to save a life on a moment’s notice. All that is required is a basic training, a basic drug, and a basic show of compassion towards those in crisis.”

 

No New Money, No New Ideas in Trump’s Opioid Response

This article appeared on GayCityNews.com on Oct. 30, 2017

BY NATHAN RILEY | Donald Trump’s declaration of a public health emergency to end the epidemic of opioid overdose deaths wraps itself in virtue, but avoids the burning question about the nation’s drug policy: What works?

During the 1990s, Switzerland and Portugal were among the nations that experienced the growth in opioid use seen here in the US as well. In those two nations, however, the response was radically different than in the US.

Switzerland and Portugal asked public health officials to solve the problem and minimized law enforcement activity in response. As a result, there, drug use seldom involves criminal sanctions and services are provided by health and social workers comfortable in working with drug users. The Swiss offered medically-assisted therapy with methadone, and for a smaller group of users medical heroin itself. Programs were geared toward aiding drug users in managing their habit. There were never grand declarations to “end” drug use.

The Swiss program — designed by doctors in tandem with users — conflicts with basic American attitudes toward drug use. A cardinal principle is that the user picks their dose. Overdose levels, of course, bring intervention, but the program design is clear that the user must determine their comfort level. After 20 years without a major backlash, heroin users, over the long run, tend to abandon their habit. And, crucially in the context of the link between drug use and other criminal behavior, most live without relying on illegal activity to pay for their habit.

Drug users have easy access to medically-assisted treatment. Those users permitted access to medical heroin in Switzerland must stop over a three-to-10-year period. The number of Swiss narcotics-related deaths in 1995 was 376; by 2012, it had fallen two-thirds to 121.

These nations have housing and psychological services available to all, one of the key demands of drug reformers. The presidential commission appointed by Trump and headed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie endorsed that idea, but there is no money in Medicaid for these services.

Donald Trump had two ways to go — finding more money for health services or making bold but empty promises. If he had declared a “national emergency” — as he initially pledged — it would have created claims on a $53 billion federal fund. For the “public health emergency” he declared last week, there is currently $57,000 in the kitty. Hence the Times’ headline: “Trump Declares Opioid Crisis a ‘Health Emergency’ but Requests No Funds.”

A swift warning came from Gay Men’s Health Crisis about the “potential efforts under the Public Health Emergency Declaration to redirect funding from HIV/ AIDS programs.” The Daily News also voiced suspicion that money would be siphoned from AIDS/ HIV services.

But the biggest howl of fury came from the new executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, who blasted the president’s speech saying it showed “a profound and reckless disregard for the realities about drugs and drug use.” Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, a human rights activist who replaced Ethan Nadelmann, challenged Trump, poopooing his recommendation that drug prevention programs revive the “just say no” evangelizing of Nancy Reagan and his faith that public service announcements would “prevent” drug use.

“He made a big deal” about taking a pharmaceutical opioid off the market, she scoffed, noting that such a strategy is years out of date. “The opioids involved in overdoses are mostly coming from the illicit market” today, McFarland Sánchez-Moreno said. Drug users have gone from the gray market to a wholly criminal underground market of drugs laced with fentanyl — a transformation that is a damning indictment of the prohibition and the criminalizing of drug use. Drug deaths have been rising for years. Last year, there were 64,000 overdose deaths — roughly equal to all Americans killed in the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan conflicts combined.

Trump also showed his ignorance about how drugs enter the US, when he spoke lovingly of how his Mexican border wall would halt the inflow. McFarland Sánchez-Moreno was unconvinced; the illicit drug trade, she said, “always” finds ways to “get around the walls and barriers the US has put up to block it,” with many drugs smuggled inside freight containers as part of our heavy border commercial traffic with Mexico.

Pointing his finger at immigrants, she added, has a sinister motivation. Trump blames “immigrants for bringing drugs across the border, ignoring that immigrants are overwhelmingly more law-abiding than US citizens,” McFarland Sánchez-Moreno said. The entire presidential declaration, she said, provided yet another excuse for “talking about criminal justice answers to a public health problem, even though the war on drugs is itself a major factor contributing to the overdose crisis.” Trump is still trying to use a hammer to smash the drug problem, with immigrants hit with a special ferocity.

The president’s plan, McFarland Sánchez-Moreno charged, will spread pain and misery, “condemning even more people to death, imprisonment, and deportation in the name of his war on drugs.”

Sadly, as if on cue, Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the US Senate, answered Trump’s call, finding $12.5 million to fund a new DEA team to focus on the smuggling of fentanyl at Kennedy Airport. Look for the arrest of black and brown baggage handlers.

Nobody expects this one unit to make a real difference, but it points up drug reformers’ fears that in a nation that refuses to give up its belief that criminal law protects its young from drug addiction, law enforcement will get the bulk of any new funds identified. A public health approach, based on strategies that “work,” remains the low man on the budget totem pole.