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There have been too many casualties in the War on Drugs

The War on Drugs has always been a war on people — I know because I am one of its survivors. Shortly after President Nixon declared the drug war, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller created New York’s Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor (SNP) — an office that exists nowhere else in the country — that accelerated harm and death throughout New York. Like so many people who use drugs, I was criminalized by the same policies the SNP promotes before I was ever given the opportunity to seek help for myself and the trauma I’ve endured.

Every year, the SNP incarcerates thousands of people a year for drug-related offenses, while also destabilizing Black, Brown and low-income communities. The office remains a horrific symbol of a draconian era of violence and contributes to New York’s overdose crisis, instead of ending it. If we want to save lives from overdose, it’s time that state lawmakers and Gov. Hochul abolish the New York City Special Narcotics Prosecutor’s Office.

My personal experience is proof that the SNP does nothing but destroy lives. Back in 1995, I was arrested and incarcerated for selling drugs, and was given two to four years in prison, even though I pleaded with the courts to be placed in treatment as an active user.

Despite my own attempts to vocalize my need for more support and social services, I was denied that request. At the time of my arrest, methadone and buprenorphine (the gold standard of treatment for opioid use disorder) were not available in prison. I suffered through painful withdrawal, pulling out my hair and sleeping under my cot just to feel a bit more secure.

I wish I could say my sentence was over when I came home in 1997, but my struggle only magnified as I navigated life after incarceration. I couldn’t find a job, I couldn’t find a decent place to live, and I was stigmatized as a felon. I was tossed to the side at every point where I needed help. Being incarcerated destroyed my life at a moment where I needed help the most. That’s the mark the drug war left on my life, and for the thousands more, my story is all too familiar.

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The drug war has tentacles throughout our state’s infrastructure, and our elected leaders continue to invest in a system that saw me as someone worth condemning — not saving. That’s why, almost 30 years after my own experience, I am demanding that New York State’s leaders divest from harm and criminalization, and invest in systems of care if we ever want to see an end to the overdose crisis.

The SNP serves as a pillar for the racist, classist drug policies that have traumatized and harmed our communities for decades. We know that criminalization increases the risk of an overdose significantly, and studies show overdose is the leading cause of death after someone is released from incarceration. Drug busts have been shown to dramatically spike overdoses in the surrounding neighborhoods. With more than 18 New Yorkers dying every day to a preventable overdose, this cycle of criminalization will only lead to more lives lost and more families broken.

Imagine that instead of incarcerating thousands of New Yorkers every year for drug-related offenses, our state invested in an infrastructure of care, housing, and evidence-based public health solutions — like Overdose Prevention Centers — that would save the lives of thousands more. My life would have been radically different if that were true more than two decades ago.

OnPoint’s two Overdose Prevention Centers (OPCs) in New York City — the first sanctioned OPCs in the nation — recently celebrated their 1,000th overdose intervention, while also not having a single death at their sites. I am furious that despite this critical moment in the overdose crisis, Hochul continues to wield drug users’ lives as political pawns instead of authorizing these lifesaving centers.

Tomorrow. Aug. 31, is International Overdose Awareness Day, when we will honor the thousands of our loved ones lost to preventable overdoses. We will demand that the governor and our lawmakers end the systems that stigmatize and criminalize people to death, including abolishing the Special Narcotics Prosecutor’s Office. Awareness is not enough in this unrelenting crisis — every New Yorker deserves access to wrap-around services that center their humanity.

We will remind our officials that New York State has been both a stain on the nation with draconian drug policies, and could be a beacon of hope with innovative lifesaving solutions. We demand action!

Reyes is a long time community leader, harm reduction advocate, co-director of the Peer Network of New York, and board member at VOCAL-NY.

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