Shantae Owens says he could have used a little more help getting on the straight and narrow during the 24 years he was addicted to heroin.
“I think if I would have gotten into treatment in my teens, early adulthood, it wouldn’t have led to me having to deal with homelessness and all the other stuff that comes with it,” said Owens, 41 who is a member of VOCAL New York, a grassroots community organization. “They look at drug addiction as someone who is evil, a criminal, all the stigma comes up, so they don’t gravitate toward you, they push back from you.”
As heroin deaths continue to rise in New York City, City Council is considering establishing a Office of Drug Strategy, which would unite multiple city agencies to combat drug abuse from a public health standpoint, and shift the focus away from criminalization to rehabilitation.
Council Member Corey Johnson, who introduced the bill in May, said Canada and European countries already have drug strategy offices, and New York could be the first place in the U.S. to do so if City Council passes the legislation.
Johnson, who chairs the health committee, said creating an Office of Drug Strategy would put the city on the right path toward “solving some of the thorniest problems in health and public safety.”
“The war on drugs have left a legacy of misery, corruption and waste and this bill is a small step toward changing course and building a city where people get the help they need to be healthy,” Johnson said, adding he’s celebrating his sixth year of sobriety in a few weeks and that he considers himself lucky “all the stupid stuff I did before I was sober didn’t land me in very hot water.”
“But today we’re here because New Yorkers are tired of discoordination in this city … New York City has some of the best resources and we can’t get to them because of this red tape, and there’s no one we can go to to ask for accountability,” said Kassandra Frederique, a policy manager with Drug Policy Alliance.
At a hearing that discussed the bill later Tuesday morning, Johnson said the city provides a "patchwork of mental health services that don’t always treat people the way they need.”
One New Yorker dies every other day from painkiller overdoses, according to Gary Belkin, executive deputy commissioner of the city health department’s division of mental hygiene.
Drug deaths increased 41 percent in New York City from 2010-2013, according to city health department figures released last year, with 77 percent of those from heroin, painkillers or other opioids.
NYPD Assistant Chief Brian McCarthy said the department has seized 716 pounds of heroin so far this year, compared to 353 pounds during the same period in 2014.
Many NYPD officers now carry naloxone kits that can reverse a heroin overdose. During the hearing Council member Paul Vallone expressed some concern of police officers toeing the line with public health.
"The NYPD shouldn’t have to be a social worker on the scene," Vallone said.