BRIC TV’s latest town hall tackles the war on drugs
It’s the hot-button issue that’s being debated all over the city.
A panel gathered on Wednesday night for a BRIC TV Town Hall, moderated by Brian Vines, to discuss the legalization and decriminalization of drugs.
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez; Dr. Hilary Kunins NYC Assistant Commissioner of Health and Mental Hygiene; Chino Hardin, field director for NuLeadership for Urban Solutions; Tom Robbins with The Marshall Project and Kassandra Frederique; New York state director of the Drug Policy Alliance were all on the panel. The last two also sponsored the evening’s town hall.
Gonzalez began the talk recounting his youth in East New York and witnessing virtually an entire generation of his peers stigmatized by drug-related arrests and convictions. “It helped ruin generations of young people — particularly black and brown people — in my neighborhood.”
While reducing harm inflicted by the criminal justice system when encountering users appeared to be everyone’s priority, not all present were in favor of outright legalization.
“It stinks!” insisted an audience member named Rayleigh. “This heavy pot smell! It’s all over everywhere, not just NYCHA. It’s sickening! And you’re talking about legalizing it? Why do we have to legalize it? Why can’t it be dealt with? I understand white people benefit from everything, and we don’t. The mayor, City Council … in my hood it’s like the tumbleweed you see blowing in those old western movies, ‘cause nobody cares!”
Among the panelists, though, legalization was in broad favor.
“The war on drugs has never been war on drugs; it’s a war on black and brown persons, so of course, 40 years later, we don’t have a solution,” Hardin said. “If we’re going to continue to be honest as well, it wasn’t until white suburban kids were overdosing on opiates that we even began to care about that addiction.”
It’s possible Hardin had in mind 2008’s Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act named for the 18-year-old resident of La Mesa in San Diego’s North County who overdosed on Vicodin allegedly purchased from an online pharmacy.
“We created new battle lines … with the pharmaceutical companies creating new levels of addiction,” Robbins added.
“Lip service is cheap,” said Assembly District 42 candidate Anthony Beckford after Vines opened up the forum to comments from the audience. “We need 100 percent legalization and decriminalization!”
Gonzalez then offered his plan for how the DA’s Office would deal with the issue.
“Our focus,” Gonzalez explained, “is that when someone is brought in, we’re thinking about the public health ramifications rather than punishment or legal sanctions available. If we can get funding, we’re going to send peer counselors and try to present a treatment option to the arrested individual.”
“During the previous DA’s tenure,” Vines interjected, “he initiated a similar policy, but we actually saw the numbers go up in some cases.”
“The racial disparity didn’t change,” Gonzalez replied, “but the magnitude of numbers went down. We’re also looking to change the policy of forcing people to plead guilty to access services, which a tremendous change in the culture of the DA’s Office.”
“New York was the marijuana arrest capital of the U.S.,” said Frederique. “And let’s be clear, it was black and Latino moms that were getting their kids taken away while white moms are on the cover of GQ talking about how marijuana helps their parenting!”
“There’s nothing here about prevention,” objected children’s book author and recovered addict Melvin Blackman. “We teach kids not to stick their fingers into electrical outlets. How about drugs?”
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