Drug strategy agency mixing health, safety proposed in NYC

AP News
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Posted: Apr 16, 2015 5:29 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — A new drug policy agency would focus as much on health as on policing under a proposal a New York City lawmaker introduced Thursday to shift how the nation's biggest city approaches illegal drug use.

The drug strategy office would advise city leaders on lowering drug-related deaths and disease along with crime. It also would coordinate answers to a problem that sometimes seems to pit one set of government objectives against another, supporters say.

Advocates say it would be one of few local agencies of its kind nationwide, and New York's size would make it a showcase for less punitive, more public-health-minded drug policies.

"It's about getting people treatment and also ensuring that we have high standards for public safety," said Councilman Corey Johnson, who heads the health committee likely to give the proposal a first-round consideration.

Mayor Bill de Blasio's office is looking forward to examining the proposal and "supports efforts to address substance dependency and to intervene before an individual enters the criminal justice system," spokeswoman Monica Klein said.

A mayoral task force is already making plans that include taking some low-level offenders to drop-off treatment centers, instead of arraignment courts.

The city also has drug courts, a special narcotics prosecutor, a roster of substance abuse services and a mayor who decided last fall to start ticketing, instead of arresting, many people carrying small amounts of marijuana.

The proposed agency would analyze current policies, recommend improvements and review proposals. It could help work through complexities like the interplay between government-approved, needle-exchange programs and a state law against carrying syringes, said Matt Curtis, the policy director of the Vocal NY advocacy group.

State Division of Criminal Justice Services statistics show an average of about 70 arrests a year citywide on the misdemeanor charge, which exempts people allowed to get needles. Such permission can be hard to show immediately because syringe-exchange enrollment cards are kept anonymous to protect privacy, said Terrell Jones, who works with an exchange program. He said some people shy away for fear of arrest.

"They don't feel protected" despite the exemption meant to protect them, he said.

The proposed agency would echo strategies used in some European and Canadian cities. The U.S. has a National Office of Drug Control Policy and some drug strategy agencies in such places as Denver and the state of Idaho.

But the proposal in the nation's largest city "could really lay the groundwork for showing other municipalities and states" how the idea works, said Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group.

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Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @ jennpeltz.