Lawmakers in Massachusetts and New York have introduced bills to broadly decriminalize currently illicit drugs in order to treat drug abuse as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice issue.
At that session, there was significant interest in drug policy reform in state legislatures across the country, with a number of measures on marijuana and psychedelics, for example, being introduced in the early weeks of 2023. Now the legislature is trying to stop the criminalization of people for drugs altogether.
In addition to new Massachusetts and New York bills, Washington state lawmakers have also signaled that they will address the issue of decriminalization this year before a temporary criminalization policy implemented following a decision by the state Supreme Court expires which voided the state’s criminal statute against drug possession. So far, however, the only bills officially tabled in the 2023 session would maintain criminalization.
Here is what the two new decriminalization laws would achieve:
A bill by Rep. Samantha Montaño (D) would amend the state law by removing and replacing a section that currently mandates criminal penalties for drug possession.
In lieu of fines and possible jail time, individuals found to be in possession of an illicit drug would be “subject to participation in a needs screening to assess needs for healthcare and other services, including but not limited to services who may address substance use disorders and mental illness, lack of employment, housing or food, and any need for civil legal services.”
“Screening should prioritize the individual’s self-identified needs for referral to appropriate services,” it says. “Screening must be performed by individuals trained in the use of evidence-based, culturally and gender-sensitive trauma-informed practices.”
Subpoenas would be dismissed for anyone who could show they completed the verification within 45 days of the offence.
Advocates of drug policy reform are generally skeptical about involuntary treatment, but the proposal would only mandate screening that might identify opportunities to enter some form of rehabilitation or address the underlying socioeconomic factors that contribute to drug abuse.
“The completion of the screening shall not be deemed an admission of any kind and no legal determination shall be made on the basis of the certificate issued,” the bill reads.
Separately, the Massachusetts bicameral legislature recently introduced a measure to legalize a number of psychedelics for adults ages 18 and older in the state.
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In New York, Senator Gustavo Rivera (D) introduced a bill late last week that would eliminate criminal and civil penalties for drug possession while creating a task force responsible for investigating and making recommendations on additional reforms.
A justification memo accompanying the law emphasizes that substance abuse is widely viewed as a health condition, yet “New York and other states have continued to treat drug use as a moral failure and a crime, thereby stigmatizing and imprisoning millions of people for suffering a disease.”
“Such treatment is in stark contrast to how society and government treat people suffering from other diseases, such as cancer or an anxiety disorder,” it says. “While individuals with these other conditions are typically viewed as worthy of compassion, support, and medical care, those with SUD are belittled, criminalized, and treated as unworthy of help and compassion.”
The memo goes on to describe the ineffectiveness of criminalization in curbing drug use and racial disparities in enforcing prohibition.
“Instead of preventing use, these laws have devastated individuals, families and communities. Treating drug use as a crime disrupts and destabilizes the lives of drug users. It contributes to an increased risk of death, the spread of infectious diseases, mass incarceration, family separation, and barriers to access housing, employment, and other essential services. All of this comes at a tremendous financial cost through increased spending on the criminal justice system, child welfare system, health care system, housing system and others, as well as decreased productivity and employment.”
Meanwhile, other states and countries like Portugal have embraced decriminalization, and alongside helping to destigmatize addiction, data suggests the policy is linked to lower overdose death rates, lawmakers said.
“For far too long, New York, along with the rest of the United States, has made enforcement a central part of its response to drug use. It continued to do so long after it became apparent that these extremely costly measures had not achieved their stated goal of preventing illicit drug use,” the memo said.
The bill itself includes a Legislative Findings section, which states that criminalizing people for drugs “does significant harm to drug users by disrupting and further destabilizing their lives.”
“The purpose of this legislation is to save lives and help change New York’s approach to drug use from one based on criminalization and stigma to one based on science and compassion by reducing criminal and civil penalties for personal possession of controlled substances be abolished.” it says.
The legislation would make a number of changes to state statutes to achieve this goal, including replacing the word “criminal” with “unlawful” in relation to property crimes.
A person committing a simple violation of property would no longer face a misdemeanor conviction; Instead, they could either pay a $50 fine or participate in “needs screening to assess needs for health and other services, including but not limited to services addressing problem substance use and mental illness, lack of employment.” , housing or food deal, and any need for civil legal services.”
Like the Massachusetts bill, the measure provides that screenings “should prioritize the individual’s self-identified needs for referral to appropriate services.” Also, there is 45 days to complete the screening for the fine to be waived.
“Failure to pay such a fine is not the basis for further penalties or imprisonment,” it clarifies.
In addition, the bill calls for the establishment of a “Drug Decriminalization Taskforce” that would be responsible for developing “recommendations for reforming state laws, regulations and practices to be consistent with the stated goal of treating substance use disorders as a disease rather than a criminal behavior.” .”
Task force members would need to examine the amounts of drugs that should constitute personal possessions, barriers to accessing services for people with substance use disorders, recommendations for additional policy reform and promotion of treatments, harm reduction programs and more.
Key officials, including the state health commissioner, would be part of the panel, in addition to others appointed by the governor and legislative leaders. They would have to submit a report with initial findings within a year of the bill coming into force.
Separately, the governor of New York announced last week that the state’s second adult-use marijuana retailer – which will also be the first owned by a person previously criminalized for cannabis – will open on Tuesday.
Also, the New York legislature recently pre-tabled a 2023 bill to legalize certain psychedelics, such as psilocybin and ibogaine, for adults 21 and older.
In Washington, state lawmakers are also again considering penalties for drug possession and related issues in this session.
Following a February 2021 Supreme Court decision invalidating the state’s drug possession crime statute, lawmakers enacted a temporary criminalization directive that is scheduled to expire on July 1. Some lawmakers want the state to formalize a policy of decriminalized possession, but others want criminalization to be maintained.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Medical Association (MMA) recently advocated comprehensive drug decriminalization, deletions for low-level possession, and the promotion of statewide harm reduction programs.
Oregon voters took the historic step to decriminalize possession of all drugs in the 2020 election — and a poll released in September shows the state’s policy continues to enjoy majority support.
According to a poll released last year, a large majority of Americans nationwide, including most Republicans, support drug decriminalization. There is also a general majority in favor of allowing overdose prevention centers to operate, where people can use illicit substances in a medically supervised environment and receive treatment resources.
Support for the decriminalization proposal has increased by 10 percentage points overall since voters were asked about it in 2021 with a different question in a previous Data for Progress poll.
Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), has said that to effectively combat substance abuse and the stigma of addiction, the ongoing criminalization of people for drug use must end.
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