Next Steps for Drug Policy and Mass Incarceration in NY

Last month, Gabriel Sayegh, the managing director of policy and campaigns at the Drug Policy Alliance, presented at the National Association of Social Workers NYC Chapter Addictions Committee Meeting. He is known for campaigning tirelessly to end the New York marijuana arrest crusade, developing municipal-based drug strategies, and advancing effective drug policies toward a health-based approach. During the meeting, Sayegh shared a promising future for New York drug policy, criminal justice, mental health and substance abuse advocates, but warned there would be missed opportunity and ongoing racial disparity with incarceration if they did not act now to pressure Albany to stop stalling and implement the ongoing drug policy reforms.

In 1971, President Nixon introduced the war on drugs. This lasting and calamitous approach became the official policy for managing all aspects of drug use. Less than two years later, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller passed even tougher measures to punish drug users—the Rockefeller Drug Laws. This involved extreme measures of minimum prison sentences of 15 years, even for first-time drug law violations.

Needless to say, the U.S. incarcerated population exploded, reaching over 2 million by 2013, with seven million being under correctional control—mostly Blacks and Latinos. The Rockefeller laws, and others modeled after it, fell so disproportionately on low-income communities and communities of color that they soon became viewed as the New Jim Crow. The drug war had not only created huge racial disparities in incarceration, but was soon to become recognized as the country’s greatest failure in drug policy.

Sayegh explained that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has become a way out of this tried and failed approach. The ACA has declared addiction as a health issue. These healthcare changes are indeed relevant for drug policy and criminal justice, as it helps switch from the criminalization paradigm to a more compassionate and humane one. That is, criminal justice and drug policy reform advocates can enact policy changes without relying on criminal justice solutions. A promising future, but also quite challenging for which policy can create significant change and reverse the high incarceration rates.

Sayegh explained that New York has already been through a few policy course corrections. After Mayor Bloomberg announced in 2013 a change to the NYPD’s marijuana arrest policy, the community rejoiced. Instead of holding the tens of thousands of New Yorkers in jail, they would be released with a Desk Appearance Ticket. A good start, but it still didn’t solve the racial disparities.

Mayor Bill de Blasio continued on this path. He announced in November 2014 an end to low-level marijuana possession arrests, with only summons being issued. This had great intention, but it too lacked in accounting for the extreme racial disparities. Sayegh argued it is hard to track summons. How could they show there is less targeting of minorities or low-income areas? He announced a study would be released in the spring to show if there are indeed any changes under these new policies.

The last example of course corrections Sayegh gave involved the increased number of Drug Courts. A Drug Court is an alternative to short-term incarceration or probation. The defendant is given the option to complete a standardized treatment program and undergo frequent drug testing to avoid prosecution. However, Sayegh argued, the Drug Court capacity is limited. Some people feign having an addiction problem so as to avoid jail. This slows and complicates the process to differentiate between those who actually need the treatment. This stops thousands of people a year from having the choice for a treatment program, thus making it more likely they come into contact with the criminal justice system.

All in all, while the most significant changes in 40 years is happening now, Sayegh said proposals to continue fixing New York’s marijuana possession laws have slowed in Albany. Reforms have been passed, but there is still a lack of implementation. This could be because the possibilities of implementation have been squandered by lack of investment into the reforms themselves. Whatever the reason, Sayegh encouraged those in the room to continue to pressure Albany, work together for broader reform, and use the leverage of the ACA to end mass incarceration and discrimination.  

For more information on Addictions Committee Meetings visit their webpage here.