Sylvester Salcedo, a local Navy veteran-turned-lawyer, is starting a statewide push for the decriminalization of heroin.
With this initiative, Salcedo is building off one of the major platforms he championed during a 2012 push to be elected to the United States Senate. On Feb. 7, the New Haven Register published an article describing the nine heroin-related deaths that took place in Connecticut in 2014 by Jan. 12. That article, combined with the media stir caused by actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s overdose in February, helped spur Salcedo back into action.
He admits that his goal — enacting legislation that creates safe-injection clinics, where heroin addicts can access the drug in a safe and controlled environment — is ambitious. Still, he said the state’s liberal track record gives him reason to believe that his voice will be heard.
“What I’d like to do in Connecticut, in direct response to what has been happening with the reported overdoses across the state, is try to bring heroin addicts and their relatives a platform,” Salcedo said. “A safe haven, where they can deal with the issue safely, without fear of law enforcement.”
To Salcedo, the issue of drug addiction is one for medical professionals, not police officers or court systems. He said, he plans to enlist city and state public health officials who would be willing to support the cause by demanding increased funding and resources for the treatment, rather than the arrest, of the drug-addicted population.
A stint as a Naval intelligence officer put Salcedo on the front lines of the American war on drugs, an effort that he now claims is misguided.
As a result, he has taken the past month to develop a strategy to best pursue his goals: decriminalizing the drug, creating a “Connecticut Heroin Users Union” to catalogue addicts in need and piloting clinics, which would be staffed by medical professionals trained to inject patients with an appropriate dosage of heroin.
Though experts interviewed said that the project will face political hurdles, Salcedo said he is modeling his proposal after existing programs in Europe and Canada.
A safe-injection clinic in Vancouver, was the first such clinic to open in North America. Researchers from the Yale School of Public Health said though the project has been subject to much scrutiny since its launch in 2003, initial data are encouraging for those in the pro-legalization camp.
“The benefits of such a program were pretty much demonstrated,” said Robert Heimer GRD ’88, a professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health. “According to the scientific evaluation by an external group of scientists, you’d have to say yes, [the program was successful in its mission].”
Heimer described the findings, which included no reported overdose deaths, disease transmission or illicit drug sales in the clinic, as well as decreased emergency room use in response to needle-related hygiene issues.
Similar clinics have since been approved in Toronto and Montreal, and pro-legalization activists in Calgary, one of Canada’s more conservative cities, are gaining momentum.
Lauretta Grau, an associate research scientist in Epidemiology at the School of Public Health, agreed that the clinics would be a positive move from the public health perspective, adding that allowing access to the drug does not discourage addicts from seeking formal treatment.
“I don’t think that providing people with clean and safe equipment is promoting substance abuse,” she said. “What you are doing is affording addicts the privilege that you afford any person in this country that wants access to good health care and good facilities.”
She added that addicts, who tend to lead “chaotic” lives, might actually be more willing to have their addiction be treated after stabilizing in a consistent, accepting environment. Still, Grau acknowledged Salcedo will likely face political opposition in lobbying for his plan.
Salcedo said he has tried to gauge the community’s reaction to the recent wave of heroin-related news before moving to contact local and state politicians and leaders in police, medicine and education.
City Hall spokesman Laurence Grotheer said that, though Mayor Toni Harp ARC ’78 has not announced plans for aggressive drug reform, she continues to explore ways for addicts to receive treatment on the road to recovery. He added that drug policy will inherently affect the economy in New Haven, in addition to crime and health care in the city.
Mike Lawlor, Gov. Dannel Malloy’s criminal justice advisor, added that, though this particular plan has not crossed the governor’s desk, the state has already committed to drug reform.
Lawlor cited the state’s recent legislative packages that loosen restrictions on medical marijuana and naloxone, a medication that serves as an antidote to overdose, as examples of Gov. Dannel Malloy’s recent involvement in drug reform.
“Our criminal justice policy is focused on crimes involving violence and firearms and actual victims,” he said. “The Governor has tried to de-emphasize the focus on non-violent, low-level offenders and deal with more serious matters.”
He added that political figures like State Senators Martin Looney and Gary Holder-Winfield could be important to Salcedo’s campaign as he attempts to secure the support of a visible leader. Looney, Holder-Winfield and a spokesman for the state Republican party were unavailable for comment.
In Octobert 2013, a report issued by Trust for America’s Health showed that drug overdoses are responsible for more deaths than motor vehicle accidents in 29 states and in the District of Columbia.