By Paul Grondahl
Dozens of black and Hispanic demonstrators and minority legislators who represent inner-city districts pledged to raise their voices and to demand a fair share of treatment funding as the battle front in the heroin epidemic has shifted to largely white suburban areas.
“It took a white face of drug addiction to get the public interested. Communities of color have been ignored for 45 years and we’re still being ignored. That is unacceptable. Addiction and overdoses have ravaged our communities,” said Kristen Maye, a policy analyst with the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group that organized Wednesday’s rally on the Million-Dollar Staircase of the state Capitol.
Dozens of demonstrators, most of whom rode buses from downstate boroughs, chanted: “No More Drug War. No More Pain.” They carried signs and banners that read “Racial Justice. Public Health Now” and “Prescription for Everybody’s Pain.”
Led by the statewide grassroots advocacy group Vocal NY, they called on legislators and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to pass legislation to increase access to medication-assisted treatment for low-income communities of color, to repeal a criminal law for syringe possession, to increase funding for harm reduction services, to decriminalize certain drug possession offenses and to increase Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, programs.
“Suddenly, after almost 50 years, we have a drug epidemic. I never heard a murmur before, but now we will shout and we will not be silenced,” said Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson, a Bronx Democrat who worked in drug treatment programs for 25 years. “If you don’t have rich mommies or daddies, you don’t get treatment.” “When the complexion of the drug user changed, the conversation changed from a criminal activity to a public health problem,” said Assemblyman Charles Barron, a Brooklyn Democrat who disrupted Cuomo’s State of the State address. “This is blatant racism and we’re not going to have it. Today, we’re on the Capitol steps. Maybe we need to take over the Governor’s Mansion. That’s public housing, paid for with tax dollars.”
“Today, the angry black man has risen,” said Terrell Jones, 60, of the Bronx, who spent time in state prison on a drug-dealing conviction in the 1990s and overcame crack cocaine addiction. He’s been clean for 15 years and is a program manager for the New York Harm Reduction Educators.
“Harm reduction programs treated me with dignity and respect, as a person with a disease, not as a crackhead or a junkie,” Jones said.
“Locking more people up is not the answer,” said Jimmy Ruiz, 44, of Washington Heights in northern Manhattan. He served time in state prison for drug dealing, where he started sniffing heroin smuggled into the facility. He’s been clean for three years and now works as an advocate for harm reduction policies.
“This is a conversation that is long overdue. It’s absolutely about racial disparities in access to treatment,” said Keith Brown, who previously ran an Albany needle exchange program and is the project director of Albany’s new LEAD program.