City aims to reform drug abuse treatment

A little over a year ago, Republican Gov. John Rowland departed from his party’s typically anti-drug rhetoric with the bold declaration that Connecticut needed a “more enlightened approach” in its treatment of drug offenders.

Since then, New Haven has opened a new office to focus on the city’s drug policies, and needle exchange programs across Connecticut continue to receive funding from the state. But criminal justice advocates and city officials alike agree that the state’s drug policy and treatment resources still require substantial reform.

Sally Joughin of People Against Injustice said 12 percent of people who are incarcerated and require drug treatment do not receive any help. And Mark Kinzly of the Connecticut Harm Reduction Coalition, a drug treatment advocacy group, said the stigma against drug users prevents the government from providing them with adequate help.

“In this country, we ostracize you, marginalize you even further than you already are,” said Kinzly, who is also a needle exchange provider, in a talk Monday at Yale’s African-American Cultural Center sponsored by the Students Legal Action Movement.

Kinzly said that every 20 seconds, someone is arrested for a drug violation. And according to estimates by the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction, between 7,000 and 11,000 people in New Haven suffer from substance abuse.

Six weeks ago, the New Haven office previously known as Fighting Back became the Office of Substance Abuse Policy and Prevention under a new director, former Ward 7 Alderwoman Esther Armmand. Though the city does not provide direct substance abuse treatment, the office will help to educate the public on drug abuse treatment and prevention. Armmand said the office’s primary goal is for the city to eventually provide access within 48 hours to a drug treatment facility for anyone who requests it.

She added that Mayor John DeStefano Jr. is in the process of appointing a 16-person committee to further examine the city’s drug policy and treatment resources. Currently, the city partially funds at least 15 different treatment facilities, which provide child care, case management and in-patient treatment. Armmand estimated the office’s total budget to be $350,000.

Armmand called the city’s drug problem a “very complicated quagmire.” Before taking on the job of director four months ago, Armmand opened and ran a medical triage detox center in New Haven.

Last year, Rowland called for new facilities to treat drug offenders, including a $5 million proposal to create a new 500-bed Community Justice Center that would treat non-violent drug offenders, keeping them out of higher security prisons. He also proposed that judges be given more discretion when sentencing drug offenders.

Connecticut was also one of the first states to sanction a needle exchange program, which began in New Haven in 1990. The city’s health department now runs the Community Health Care van, which visits areas in the city where drug use is particularly high.

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