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Reforming state drug laws is focus of major conference


Published April 25, 2013

On May 2 and 3, UB and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) will present “Leading the Way: Toward a Public Health & Safety Approach to Drug Policy in New York,” a conference designed to convene more than 35 local, state, national, and international political leaders, government officials, community organizations, leading academics, service providers, advocates and others to discuss the need to reform current drug New York State laws.

This event is free and open to the public but because of space limitations, pre-registration is required.

“Many organizations from across the state that are focused on law, justice, mental health, alcohol and drug treatment and recovery, public health and prison reform have joined us in this important effort to provoke a coordinated approach to drug policy that prioritizes public health and safety, and to reform the draconian and destructive Rockefeller drug laws, now notorious across the nation as an example of the failed ‘war on drugs,’” says Robert Granfield, UB professor of sociology and a conference convener.

Conference objectives are to assess the current drug policy in New York; consider the effectiveness of other approaches and their applicability here; examine the current national landscape and emerging developments in drug policy, criminal justice and health; and discuss evidence-bases strategies for building a coordinate, health-focused  approach to drug policy aimed at prevention, treatment, harm reduction and public safety.

The conference will open on May 2 with a screening of the award-winning Eugene Jarecki documentary film “The House I Live In” from 6-9 p.m. at the Marquis de Lafayette, 391 Washington St., Buffalo. The film has been widely praised by critics (“destined for the annals of documentary history”) and called by Forbes magazine “The most important drug war film you’ll ever see.” Produced by Danny Glover, John Legend, Brad Pitt and Russell Simmons, it won the 2012 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize.

It will continue on May 3 with panels and plenary discussions from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the Ramada Hotel and Conference Center, 2402 North Forest Road, Getzville.

The conference is hosted by the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy in the UB Law School and the Drug Policy Alliance; co-sponsors are the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions, the UB Civic Engagement and Public Policy Research Initiative, the UB Department of Sociology, the UB Law School, the UB Research Institute on Addictions, VOCAL—NY and the Western New York Peace Center.

“Forty years ago, on May 7, 1973, then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller signed legislation establishing a new drug policy in New York: the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which represented a criminalization-focused approach to drug policy” Granfield explains.

Other states soon followed New York, beginning what he calls “America’s unprecedented race to incarcerate.” Constituting an approach to drug policy focused on criminalization, the laws mandated long prison terms, even for first-time drug law violations

Organizers say these laws never achieved their stated intent. Instead, as Granfield points out, “Drugs remained a challenging reality in communities across New York, mass incarceration is now standard practice in cities across the state, health outcomes have not been substantially improved, and extraordinary racial discrimination remains a hallmark of the criminalization-focused approach.

“The draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws, “he says, “became notorious around the country and around the world as an example of the failed ‘war on drugs.’”

After decades of advocacy by community groups, service providers and elected officials, the laws finally were overhauled in 2009. But while advocates called for a new approach to drug policy—a coordinated approach that prioritized public health and safety—much more needs to be done to change New York’s overall approach. Today, New York’s drug policies remain fragmented, disconnected and often contradictory.

In examining New York’s drug policies, the conference will engage with an upcoming report by the DPA and The New York Academy of Medicine: “Blueprint for a Public Health Safety Approach to Drug Policy.”