Drug Treatment Rather than Incarceration

The State must be responsible for providing substance abuse programs for all New Yorkers in need.  This will save lives, and ultimately save the state millions of dollar per year.

Being convicted for drug use has profound negative effects not only on the addict beyond mere imprisonment.  As the Drug Policy Alliance has written:

Punishment for a drug law violation is not only meted out by the criminal justice system, but is also perpetuated
by policies denying child custody, voting rights, employment, business loans, licensing, student aid, public housing
and other public assistance to people with criminal convictions. Criminal records often result in deportation of
legal residents or denial of entry for noncitizens trying to visit the U.S. Even if a person does not face jail or prison
time, a drug conviction often imposes a lifelong ban on many aspects of social, economic and political life.

These various punishments not only affect the addict, but his/her family as well.  There is a lifelong loss of income and loss of opportunity.  Families are broken up, with children separated from their parents, and there is the guilt and shame that entails.  The effects of incarceration span generations.

In addition, evidence clearly indicates how profound the impact of an incarcerated parent has on the children.  A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute concluded:

Independent of other social and economic characteristics, children of incarcerated parents are more likely to:

•  drop out of school
•  develop learning disabilities, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
•  misbehave in school
•  suffer from migraines, asthma, high cholesterol, depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, and homelessness

So the costs of incarceration are multigenerational. The question is whether being incarcerated for a mental problem – an addiction – is a benefit to the addict or society.

The financial costs of imprisonment are clear.  According to the Vera Institute, in 2010, the average annual cost per inmate in New York State is $60,076. In New York City, however, the numbers were much higher.  A 2013 study by the Independent Budget Office concluded that the city paid $167,631 per inmate per year. So the costs of incarcerating an addict are much higher than a typical drug treatment programs.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse:

Drug abuse treatment is cost effective in reducing drug use and bringing about related savings in health care. Treatment also consistently has been shown to reduce the costs associated with lost productivity, crime, and incarceration across various settings and populations. The largest economic benefit of treatment is seen in avoided costs of crime (incarceration and victimization costs).

“Avoiding the costs of crime” can be measured by the recidivism rate of drug addicts.  The evidence is clear that treatment for addicts lowers the rate of recidivism.  For instance, a five-year study of the Drug Treatment Alternative-to-Prison Program (DTAP) in Brooklyn, New York found that people who completed the program had a recidivism rate 67% lower than that of the control group who didn’t participate in the program. Many similar studies around the country have been documented.

The evidence is clear that it’s better for the individual addict, and for society itself, to provide treatment for people convicted of drug possession rather than imprisonment.  The state should have the responsibility to provide substance abuse treatment for all New Yorkers.  This basic value has to be reflected in our state constitution.

Zoning Laws and Substance Abuse Treatment Centers

In 2012, an established, successful Queens-based drug treatment center tried to open a new branch in Bensonhurst on the corner of two busy commercial streets.  According to the Brooklyn Eagle, “Community Board 11, which reviewed the application, voted unanimously in October to recommend that the state reject the application on the grounds that the facility would not fit in with the character of the surrounding community.”

Although Bensonhurst, just like every other community in New York, has residents with drug addiction problems who would benefit – perhaps even have their lives saved — from a local treatment center, the Community Board was quick to oppose it.  This is just one example of a “Not In My Back Yard” attitude that has led to innumerable zoning laws throughout the state to prevent treatment centers from providing care, which makes it much harder for substance abuse victims to receive treatment.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
In almost every instance, a community’s fear of having an alcohol or other drug treatment program located within its borders is unfounded. In reality, treatment programs pose no legitimate danger to the health or welfare of the residents, nor do they draw substance abusers and pushers to the area. In fact, alcohol and other drug treatment programs improve neighborhoods by helping people get well.

The report goes on to say that

Zoning ordinances are by far the most common barriers treatment programs face in attempting to site or relocate their facilities. Sometimes a locality’s zoning ordinances are written specifically to exclude a facility such as an alcohol or other drug treatment program. Sometimes a locality interprets its zoning laws to keep out a program or deny a program the variance necessary to comply with the zoning requirements. In either case, a treatment program may face formidable obstacles to winning the permission it needs to open its doors. It may even have to engage in a prolonged and costly legal battle before it can prevail.

Given that in 2010 the New York State Department of Health estimated that 1.9 million New Yorkers have a substance abuse problem, and that NIMBY fears are unfounded, imposing zoning ordinance restrictions on treatment centers is not simply foolish, but deadly.


How We Got Here

No drugs were illegal or in any way controlled until the twentieth century.  In fact, since hemp was a major crop, it was quite common for cannabis, like cocaine and opiates, to be an ingredient in patent medicines and over the counter, drug store concoctions.  Recreational use was largely unknown until the first few decades of the twentieth century.

Marijuana was a legal drug until 1914 in New York City, 1927 in the rest of the state, and 1937 in the country with the passing of the Federal Marijuana Tax Act of 1937.  “Congress deemed an act taxing and regulating drugs, rather than prohibiting them, less susceptible to legal challenge. As a result, the 1937 legislation was ostensibly a revenue measure.”

In 1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, which classified types of drugs into “schedules.”  Marijuana, along with heroin and LSD, was classified as a “Schedule 1” drug, and therefore of greatest danger to the public.

According to Time magazine:

The Schedule I designation made it difficult even for physicians or scientists to procure marijuana for research studies. Defining marijuana as medically useless and restricting research access ensured that it would not be developed for use in medicines through the normal medical, scientific and pharmaceutical protocols.

From 1937-74, the drug was “treated as harshly as heroin and cocaine offenses in New York State.” In response to rising drug use, in 1973 Albany enacted “legislation that created mandatory minimum sentences of 15 years to life for possession of four ounces of narcotics — about the same as a sentence for second-degree murder. The statutes became known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws — a milestone in America’s war on drugs.”  In 1975, the state slightly tempered the Rockefeller Drug Laws by decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana in private settings.

With the rise of crack in the nineteen-eighties, police officers in New York City were actually discouraged from making arrests for marijuana use.  This lasted until the Giuliani administration, when the crack epidemic had ended and new mayor promised to be tough on crime and “take back the streets.” The result was a staggering increase in the number of arrests:

From Marijuana-Arrests.com With Additional Data


When Mayor De Blasio took office, there was a promise of change, and there was great change, until suddenly, there wasn’t:

Two years ago, when Bill de Blasio announced a citywide policy change where officers would issue a summons instead of making arrests for someone in possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana, it drastically reduced the number of misdemeanor marijuana arrests, which dropped 56 percent between 2014 and 2015 alone, almost instantaneously.

But according to new data by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, they’ve gone back up just as quickly. The numbers are based on NYPD arrests from the first three months of 2016 and show an over 30 percent rise in arrests for the possession or sale of small amounts of marijuana — the department counted 5,311 busts between January and March, up from 3,973 arrests over the same period last year.

Over the first six months of 2016, marijuana arrests were still up 29% — and almost 90% of those arrested were minorities, even though minorities use marijuana at the same rates as whites.

Currently, New York State has the following penalties for marijuana possession, sale, trafficking and cultivation:

Problems Associated with Marijuana

Like any drug, abusing marijuana comes with a cost.  A recent paper in Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience summed them up:

First, cannabis dependence (addiction) is real. Second, driving while under the influence of marijuana is unsafe. Third, marijuana use has a strong association with global underachievement. Fourth, marijuana elevates the risk of developing a psychotic illness and worsens the course of several serious mental health conditions in certain individuals. Fifth, though proving causality is complex, evidence supports a “bad to worse” or “gateway” role of cannabis in the development of other substance use disorders. Important to note, most of these harms are more likely to be present when marijuana use is frequent and starts early (i.e., in adolescence).

Much the same, of course, can be said about alcohol, and marijuana, like alcohol, should be regulated and prevented from being used by minors.  However, Prohibition did not prevent alcohol abuse but instead created a huge illicit business.  The same has been true with marijuana. It’s time to end the marijuana prohibition.

The Results of Marijuana Legalization in Other States

The legalization of marijuana is leading to a decrease in the number of seizures of marijuana by the border patrol.  From fiscal year 2011 to 2015, the number of seizures made by the agency nationwide fell by 39 percent.

But what about an increase in crime or impaired driving arrests, or a wider use of marijuana, as many critics of legalization have claimed would happen?  According to a recent study by the Cato Institute, none of this has happened.

Our conclusion is that state marijuana legalizations have had minimal effect on marijuana use and related outcomes. We cannot rule out small effects of legalization, and insufficient time has elapsed since the four initial legalizations to allow strong inference. On the basis of available data, however, we find little support for the stronger claims made by either opponents or advocates of legalization. The absence of significant adverse consequences is especially striking given the sometimes dire predictions made by legalization opponents.

There is simply no apparent downside to legalization, and a great upside in conserving the justice system’s time and money to deal with more urgent issues.

Medical Marijuana in New York State

In July 2014, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature enacted the Compassionate Care Act “to provide a comprehensive, safe and effective medical marijuana program that meets the needs of New Yorkers.” However, many people this law has been severely compromised in order to get passed.  The limitations of the bill are severe:

  • Few doctors have taken the 4.5-hour training program to be registered for the program.


  • A recent survey of patients reported that 77% are unable to afford the medicine they need.


  • There are only 20 licensed medical dispensaries in the entire state.

Another issue of New York’s Medical Marijuana law is that only 10 diseases can be treated with it: HIV/AIDS, cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord with objective neurological indication of intractable spasticity, epilepsy, inflammatory bowel disease, neuropathies and Huntington’s disease.  Other states support twice as many.  Take Illinois, for example, where medical marijuana can be used for the following diseases:

Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), Alzheimer’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), Arnold-Chiari malformation and syringomyelia. cachexia/wasting syndrome, cancer, causalgia, chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, Crohn’s disease, CRPS (Complex Regional Pain Syndrome Type I), CRPS (Complex Regional Pain Syndrome Type II), dystonia, fibromyalgia (severe), fibrous dysplasia, glaucoma, hepatitis C, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), hydrocephalus, interstitial cystitis, Lupus, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, myasthenia gravis, myoclonus, Nail-patella syndrome, neurofibromatosis, Parkinson’s disease, post-concussion syndrome, residual limb pain, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), seizures, Sjogren’s syndrome, spinal cord disease (including but not limited to arachnoiditis, Tarlov cysts, hydromyelia & syringomelia), spinal cord injury. spinocerebellar ataxia (SCA), Tourette syndrome, and Traumatic brain injury (TBI).

From the above, it’s not surprising that as of November 29, 2016, more than two years after the bill became law, only 750 physicians have registered for the NYS Medical Marijuana Program and only 10,730 patients have been certified by their doctors.

In early December, 2016, the state announced that chronic pain will be added to the list of diseases officially treatable by marijuana and will allow the five licensed growers to sell their products to all of the licensed dispensaries instead of just four of them.  However, according to the New York Daily News:

The announcement came on the same day that The Daily News reported that the state’s five medical marijuana growers were “sustaining tremendous operating losses” and were urging the Health Department to take further steps to improve patient access before proceeding with its plan to add additional pot producers.