Saturday, March 28, 2009

New York Agrees to Reform Harsh Drug Laws


Baby steps. We often make progress in baby steps. Changing the drug laws in New York state is a small step in the right direction of ending drug prohibition altogether. I don't advocate an end to the "drug war" because I favor drug use. I do not. I favor it because drug prohibition is not working and has not worked. Just as our nation found that alcohol prohibition did not work in the 1920s and 1930s, so too will it one day end the failed policy on drugs.
Gov. David A. Paterson and New York legislative leaders have reached an agreement to dismantle much of what remains of the state’s strict 1970s-era drug laws, once among the toughest in the nation. The deal would repeal many of the mandatory minimum prison sentences now in place for lower-level drug felons, giving judges the authority to send first-time nonviolent offenders to treatment instead of prison. The plan would also expand drug treatment programs and widen the reach of drug courts at a cost of at least $50 million.
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Under the plan, judges would have the authority to send first-time nonviolent offenders in all but the most serious drug offenses — known as A-level drug felonies — to treatment. As a condition of being sent to treatment, offenders would have to plead guilty. If they did not successfully complete treatment, their case would go back before a judge, who would again have the option of imposing a prison sentence.
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The deal comes as the state is facing a $16 billion budget deficit for the coming fiscal year. And finding the money needed to pay for drug addiction programs, which could reach near $80 million, will prove difficult, those involved in the negotiations said. But in the long run, the changes are expected to save money because sending offenders to treatment is less expensive than spending $45,000 a year to keep them confined.

New York already has one of the most extensive drug-treatment networks in the country. Drug policy experts said that with the proposed changes in the law, the state could have the sentencing policy it needs to fully utilize those treatment programs.

“New York could actually become a national leader,” said Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national group that urges relaxation of certain drug sentencing laws. “We’re going in a public health direction here. We’re making that turn, and that’s what’s significant.” [NY Times]
Emphasis on drug education and treatment for non-violent drug offenses is the best and least expensive way to go. The fact that more politicians are standing up and making these hard decisions is a reflection on how public opinion is changing and how bad states are suffering in this economy. For more information on the advantages of drug law reform, visit this link.

Another thing to consider is that the United States has made huge improvements in public health relative to tobacco use through extensive education over the last few decades. Tobacco use has so declined and public knowledge of the health hazards has increased to the point that public support for restricting smoking in most public places is now almost universal. Few people doubt the effects of second-hand smoke.

What if we spent similar amounts of money to educate the public about the harm of drug use? Many drug education programs often resort to scare tactics instead of fact-based information. Factual education has a greater chance to succeed and scare tactics can often backfire. What do you think?
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