Q&A: Drug crusader Gabriel Sayegh on saving money and lives in the drug war

Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director of the

Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director of the policy office for the Drug Policy Alliance (Credit: Drug Policy Alliance)

Gabriel Sayegh, 36, is director of the New York State policy office for The Drug Policy Alliance, an organization devoted to making sure drug laws are grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights. He lives in Crown Heights.

 What would you most like to see changed or accomplished in NYC?

 A real attempt to account for the racial discrimination regarding the drug laws. And the removal of all criminal penalties for the possession of marijuana. Just remove them! We've gone from 1,000 arrests for marijuana in 1990 to 50,000 marijuana arrests in 2011.

 Half the people arrested for marijuana possession are between 16 and 21. Don't juveniles get their records wiped clean when they turn 18?

New York is one of the only states left that treats 16 and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. It should be 18, but it's not. We really need to raise the age of who is considered a juvenile. Nationally, there were 1.8 million drug arrests last year and half of these were for marijuana, most of which were just for possession. These are not Pablo Escobars: They're low level users.

How much does it cost?

$75 million in taxpayer money each year just to arrest and process these people in the criminal justice system. That's not counting the opportunity cost: It takes police three to five hours to process each one of these low level arrests when they could be investigating rapes and murders! Why are they spending so much time on this? Arresting young kids for pot is clearly not effective and incredibly expensive, while saddling them with a criminal record for the rest of their lives.

Advocates of the "stop-and-frisk" policy say that by stopping people for small infractions, they often apprehend people wanted for more serious crimes.

The police keep parroting that, but it's not true. They do 700,000 stops a year and half of all those stops result in a frisk. But they're recovering guns less than one-tenth of one percent of the time! The vast majority of these people walk away without a ticket or an arrest. The police are either conducting these frisks unlawfully or clearly we have the most phenomenally incompetent police force in the world. I don't believe the latter to be true. Human Rights Watch found in a study of 30,000 people arrested for marijuana possession that the vast majority did not go on to commit more serious offenses.  

What would you recommend to make the system more fair?

 The Rockefeller Drug Laws, enacted in 1973, incarcerated vast numbers of people, the vast majority of whom were black or latino. We agree now that these laws were unjust. Entire families have been bearing the long term trauma of that and we don't talk about it. We should follow the example of Portugal and stop criminalizing people for having addictions. (After Portugal decriminalized all drugs, including heroin and cocaine, it reduced its number of blood borne diseases and STDs, reduced drug abuse, halved its number of addicts and reatly reduced property crimes connected with people stealing to support addictions.) The criminal justice system should not play the primary role in response to the drug problem.

What about drug courts? 

People praise drug courts. But in order for someone to go to a drug court, they have to get arrested! In so many places, it's easier to get treatment following an arrest. Instead, we need treatment on demand. We could do it: It's just a matter of priorities. It costs $50,000 a year to keep a person in prison - more if he's in Riker's. We could provide drug treatment for a fraction of that. But we would need to develop a coordinated drug policy, such as Vancouver or Toronto has. Syringe exchanges are among the most effective public health interventions. In Vancouver, the HIV transmission rates, which used to be primarily through the sharing of needles, dropped dramatically. We changed the law here so people could not be arrested simply for possessing syringes, but people are still getting arrested because there is no good dialogue between the health care providers and the police. 

 What has been the result of New York's Good Samaritan Law, which was passed last year and designed to reduce deaths as a result of overdosing, the leading cause of accidental death in New York State?

Jon Bon Jovi's daughter is probably alive today because of that law, although we don't know if the young man who called 911 to report her overdose knew about it. (Stephanie Bongiovi, 19, overdosed on heroin in her Hamilton College dorm room in November.) Most of the people who OD do so with others, but no one calls because they're afraid of prosecution. She and her friend were arrested and charged, but all the charges were dropped. This is a fantastic example of how good laws can save lives. No one should ever be afraid to call 911.

Are there any legislators in Albany working to make the drug laws more equitable?

A In the policymakers realm, there is a profound level of resistance. There aren't a lot in the Assembly, with the notable exceptions of Jeff Aubry (D, Queens) and Karim Camara (D, Brooklyn). In the City Council, Melissa Mark-Viverito has been very good.

 What are your thoughts on Lindsay Lohan's substance abuse history?

A I hope that poor woman gets the help that she needs. To the extent that she raises the profile of drug issues, it shows the hypocrisy of our "drug war." There are celebrities out there openly using drugs, but they're not doing long prison bids.

 When most people think of drug organizations, they think of "D.A.R.E." (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), Joe Califano's group or the "Just Say No" campaign. They certainly don't think of your organization. Why are we so attached to punishment as a model instead of rationality?

I won a D.A.R.E. essay when I was in the sixth grade but I'm glad that curriculum is not being used by the Board of Education any more. We've let ideology, and, frankly, idiocy, shape our programming. We need to reduce not just the harms that drugs do to people, but the harm caused by our drug policies. Sound drug policy increases public safety and improves public health. We need reality-based education and shouldn't do anything that will decrease the likelihood that young people will go to adults for help. You can promote abstinence, but you also have to have a plan in place if that person decides to use. Every parent wants their child to come home safe at night.

How much does an ounce of weed go for in NYC these days?

A I think it's $350 to $450 an ounce. That's a lot of money. But most people are buying in nickel and dime bags, or just enough for a blunt. People who buy more are wealthier: They're getting theirs through delivery services to their home. They're not subjected to the scrutiny of these young men on the street.

So: Have you smoked?

Oh yeah! Right now is not a time in my life when I use marijuana, but I used a fair share when I was younger. Most people just age out of it. When I was younger, I was a pretty heavy meth user. But I removed myself from that situation.

Is your own drug experience what got you interested in this work?

It was a combination of my experiences, and what I saw happen to other people, seeing my friends and family get incarcerated, and seeing others who weren't. There were some Latina women at a domestic violence center who really got me thinking about the role of criminal justice in society in people's lives and some community organizers who helped me take my focus to social change: it was a real blessing. There's such an urgency about this work for me, though, because of the racial disparities our drug laws create. They are really undermining our humanity.

Tags: Gabriel Sayegh , NEWS , Sheila Anne Feeney , stop 'n' frisk , drugs , marijuana , ARTICLE , AMNY , HOLD

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