Questions from Helen Redmond, freelance journalist and drug and health policy analyst.

1. How has the War on Drugs impacted communities of color in New York State under Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former mayor Bloomberg?

Cuomo is a drug warrior and mass incarcerator, who only gestures toward reform when forced to do so.

Cuomo responded to overwhelming popular support for medical marijuana in 2014 first by trying to do a minimalist program by executive order based on a long outdated 1980 law. Then, when forced to respond to a medical marijuana bill about to pass in the legislature, he put himself between doctors and their patients and watered the bill down radically by limiting eligible diseases, modes of intake, and supply to the point where it might not meet the demand for the medicine.

Cuomo made a gesture speaking to the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus annual conference in February 2014 about supporting educational opportunities for prisoners, but has done absolutely nothing about it since that speech.

Cuomo has been silently complicit in the war on drugs and mass incarceration, first as Attorney General 2007-2010 and then as Governor since 2011, as Bloomberg-Kelly stop-and-frisk and now de Blasio/Bratton “broken windows” policing targets poor communities of color for petty offenses, particularly marijuana possession.

The War on Drugs has been a failure. It hasn't reduced substance abuse, but rather has created a culture of violence fueled by profits from the drug trade, similar to the crime wave that accompanied the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s.

Despite decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana four decades ago, New York State leads the country in marijuana arrests. New York has led the way in making the United States the world leader in the number of inmates. New York spends more state dollars on prisons than it does on the State University. It is time to focus on rebuilding our communities and rehabilitating individuals.

A 2013 report by the NYCLU documents how NY's drug laws discriminate against people of color. The greatest racial disparities occur in Kings County (Brooklyn) and New York County (Manhattan), where black New Yorkers are over 9 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possessing marijuana. Enormous racial disparities exist in counties throughout the state, including several of the state’s most populous counties, such as Onondaga (7.75 times more likely), Niagara (7.56 times more likely), Monroe (6.5 times more likely) and Erie (5.66 times more likely).

One in eight black men in their twenties are locked up on any given day. 75% of people in state prison for drug conviction are people of color although blacks and whites see and use drugs at roughly the same rate. In New York state, 94% of those imprisoned for a drug offense are people of color.

2. You are in favor of legalizing and regulating marijuana and heroin. Can you talk about the reasons why? And are you concerned that legalization/regulation will lead to an increase in the use of these drugs? 

Cuomo says marijuana is a gateway drug to hard drugs, but he is pandering to a public opinion cultivated by decades of drug war propaganda rather than basing his statement on the evidence. Marijuana can be a gateway drug when it is illegal and part of an illegal underground economy and culture that includes hard drugs. Where marijuana and heroin have been decriminalized or legalized in countries like the Czech Republic, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Switzerland, and Uruguay, both marijuana and hard drug use have declined.

Marijuana is the third most popular recreational drug in America (behind only alcohol and tobacco), having been used by nearly 80 million Americans. It is significantly less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco. 50,000 people die each year from alcohol poisoning. More than 400,000 deaths each year are attributed to tobacco smoking. By comparison, marijuana is nonaddicting, nontoxic and cannot cause death by overdose. The 1999 federally commissioned report by the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine found that "Except for the harms associated with smoking, the adverse effects of marijuana use are within the range tolerated for other medications." The European medical journal, The Lancet, stated that "The smoking of cannabis, even long-term, is not harmful to health. ... It would be reasonable to judge cannabis as less of a threat ... than alcohol or tobacco.”

Government studies conclude that marijuana decriminalization has not increased marijuana use. In addition, stricter enforcement of laws against marijuana use has no impact on the use of marijuana. As with alcohol, driving or operating heavy equipment while impaired from marijuana should be prohibited.

We can also save lives from the epidemic of heroin overdose deaths by allowing opioid and heroin addicts to seek medical treatment instead of potentially deadly fixes in the unregulated underground drug economy.

It is America's war on drugs that has kept the price of cocaine and heroin so high that criminal gangs are terrorizing nations in Central and South America.  The refugee children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are fleeing a culture of violence that is the direct result of U.S. drug policy. 

We can take the billions we are spending every year to stop coca production, interdict supply routes, arrest and prosecute buyers and sellers, and incarcerate millions of our fellow citizens, and instead use that money for treatment and rehabilitation. 

If we treat drug abuse as a health problem rather than a law enforcement problem, and provide drug treatment on demand instead of incarceration, we can save lives and undermine the unregulated underground drug economy. The money we save on the continued incarceration of drug addicts can be invested in supporting the re-entry of former prisoners into the community and reparations for the communities most damaged by mass incarceration.

3. The New York Times came out recently in favor of the legalization of marijuana: What is your reaction to the “newspaper of record” taking this position? 

What took the Times so long? It is time for New York to also legalize, regulate, and tax recreational marijuana as Colorado and Washington state now do.

New York actually decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana more than 40 years ago. Unfortunately, law enforcement officials have continued to circumvent the law and have made New York the marijuana arrest capitol of the world at tremendous cost to taxpayers and those arrested.

Because of Governor Cuomo’s interference on the long-vetted and well-crafted Compassionate Care Act, the final medical marijuana bill that passed is the weakest in the country. Playing amateur doctor, the governor put himself between doctors and their patients and limited eligible diseases, modes of intake, and supply to the point where it might not meet the demand for the medicine.

Cuomo’s obstruction on the medical marijuana bill goes against the vast consensus of medical and scientific opinion. He is perpetuating the pain and suffering of seriously ill patients who would benefit from medical marijuana.

Cuomo's jihad against marijuana goes beyond medical marijuana. By opposing the legalization of the recreational use of marijuana, he is perpetuating New York State's dubious status as the marijuana arrest capital of the world with around 50,000 arrests a year.

Cuomo's marijuana prohibition stance is as counterproductive as alcohol prohibition was. It may be good for organized crime and the prison industry. But it is devastating to health and public safety, particularly in the poor communities of color that have been targeted by the war on drugs.

4. According to your platform you are in favor of: Freedom and amnesty for all drug war prisoners currently serving time in prison or on parole for non-violent drug offenses.

Is this something you believe New Yorkers are also in favor of? How would you implement this reform?

I haven't seen a poll of New Yorkers on freeing nonviolent drug offenders, but I've seen recent polls saying 79% of Texans and 73% of Floridians do. I think it is safe to say a majority of New Yorkers also support it.

There are several steps we can take to better prepare people in prison and on parole for re-entry into society.

First, every person in prison and on parole should have the opportunity to further their education, whether it’s a GED program or a higher education program. Earlier this year Governor Cuomo abandoned a plan to provide public money for college courses at ten prisons in the face of opposition from Republicans in the state Senate, even though a Siena College poll found that 53 percent of voters supported the governor’s proposal. A publicly funded college for prisoners program would provide incentives for good behavior by prisoners, prepare them for employment upon release, and save public money by reducing recidivism. The governor himself had pointed to statistics from the privately funded Bard Prison Initiative which showed that inmates who had participated in the program had a 4 percent recidivism rate, well below the state's 40 percent recidivism rate. Other states with prison education programs have had similar results. Ohio reduced recidivism rates by more than 60 percent among ex-inmates who completed a degree in prison.

In terms of the costs, a study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that for every dollar spent on correctional education, the state saved $12. Another study from the University of California, Los Angeles found that a $1 million investment in incarceration prevented just 350 crimes, while the same investment in education prevents 600 crimes.

We also know that more than 50% of incarcerated people have children. When parents participate in postsecondary education the likelihood their children will go to college increases, creating more opportunities for multiple generations to climb out of poverty. Two-thirds of incarcerated persons were at or below the poverty level prior to their incarceration.

I would also restore eligibility for Federal Pell Grants and NY State Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) Grants for people who have been in prison. And I would include people in prison in my proposal for tuition-free education at CUNY and SUNY.

In addition, I would “ban the box”: end the practice of colleges such as SUNY using criminal history to screen applicants during the admission process. There is no evidence to suggest that past criminal histories of students are relevant risk factors that affect the rate of crime on campuses. Similarly, I would prohibit employers from asking a potential hire to check a box on the initial job application indicating if he or she has a criminal history and defer such inquiry until a conditional offer of employment is made.

I would also restore voting rights for people in prison and on parole. Participation in public affairs should be part of the rehabilitative program.

5. Talk about why you want a truth, justice and reconciliation commission to address the impact of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration. Who would be on the commission? 

In May of this year, I joined with Alice Green and the Center for Law and Justice to deliver 10,000 petition signatures from people around the state calling on the governor to establish a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission to study the impacts of mass incarceration on New Yorkers, largely brought about by the failed war on drugs. The commission will be a top priority of mine, along with statewide public defenders program to provide due process for those accused of a crime.

I would name people to the commission who have been dedicated to equal justice under law and civil rights, like Alice Green, Director of the Center for Law and Justice in Albany, and Ramon Jimenez, the Green Party candidate for Attorney General who is a Harvard-educated lawyer who has litigated criminal, labor, and tenants cases for people in his South Bronx neighborhood for 40 years.

The Commission would be modeled after a South African commission established following apartheid. It would investigate the ways the state’s drug policies and justice system generally have led to high incarceration rates. In particular, it would assess the devastating and lingering impact on black and Latino communities. It would hear from the people most directly affected and recommend alternatives to mass incarceration. And it would look at reparations for the communities impacted.

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