Utilizing a portion of the mostly vacant Midtown Campus for substance abuse recovery, opening a city-sanctioned supervised ‘injection facility,’ creating a reintegration center for people released from jail, and even decriminalizing personal drug use altogether are just a few of the ideas being considered by Santa Fe’s Municipal Drug Strategy Task Force.
The task force’s four subcommittees presented their recommendations in draft form during a meeting at city offices in Market Station at the Railyard on Thursday.
The task force’s chairwoman, Emily Kaltenbach, executive director of the New Mexico Drug Policy Alliance, asked that the subcommittees meet one more time to make any changes before the task force’s next meeting, at which time the list of recommendations will be completed for presentation to the City Council.
Meanwhile, the task force will stage three more community meetings at the city’s three libraries in early July to get additional feedback on the recommendations.
“I don’t want to rush the recommendations without more in-depth discussions,” she told about 20 members of the task force, which includes representatives from city and county government, law enforcement and medical and behavioral health services.
The task force has already produced a 15-page document summarizing findings from more than a dozen “community conversations” that involved more than 230 community members, including people currently using drugs or in recovery, immigrants, homeless people, nonprofit providers, hospital and Emergency Management Service staff, business leaders and government officials. In addition, 42 members of law enforcement responded to a survey.
“The intent of the community conversations was to gather input from a diverse spectrum of the community to better understand how alcohol and drug use, and drug policies affect different communities so that recommendations better reflect the needs of all members of community, especially those who are often not heard,” the document says.
The recommendations of the task force are scheduled to be presented to the City Council at its July 31 meeting. The task force will then develop action steps and a plan to implement strategies to carry out the recommendations by the end of the calendar year.
Group formed last year
The Drug Strategy Task Force was authorised by City Council resolution in 2017 “to explore and recommend long-term solutions in a Community Strategic Plan for addressing issues arising from persons struggling with problematic drug and alcohol use.” The task force wasn’t formed until last summer, and the group has been meeting monthly to recommend policies and practices that are alternatives to incarcerating drug law offenders.
The task force was divided up into four subcommittees charged with focusing on what can be done in the areas of prevention, treatment, harm reduction and emergency response/public safety.
The harm reduction subcommittee proposed opening a city-sanctioned overdose prevention/safe consumption site, “also called supervised injection facilities,” said Bernie Lieving, a public health social worker and overdose prevention educator.
The harm reduction group also came up with the suggested recommendation to decriminalize all drugs for personal use.
In 2014, the City Council passed a resolution to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and make enforcement of marijuana laws a low priority for local law enforcement.
“We’re really trying to think outside the box a little bit,” he said later in a phone interview, adding that decriminalization of drugs at the local level may be trumped by state law. “And if we know that the War on Drugs has failed, we have to dig a little deeper about what the city can do.”
Lieving said harm reduction programs are the most effective type of treatment for drug users.
Other suggestions from that subcommittee included implementing a Safety First program, which aims to protect teenagers from problematic drug use in Santa Fe-area schools; setting up a juvenile arrest diversion program; and an alcohol tax to raise revenue for primary prevention and community treatment programs, a topic that Lieving said drew debate among subcommittee members.
The emergency response/public safety subcommittee called for an advertising campaign highlighting the cost of treatment versus the cost of jailing drug law offenders, and creating re-integration center for newly released inmates.
The prevention subcommittee suggested the city fund and lobbying the state Legislature for additional funding for reentry programs for incarcerated individuals and their families.
“I think everyone would agree we don’t have enough of that,” said Marcela Diaz, executive director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, which advocates for immigrant rights, and a member of the prevention subcommittee.
The prevention subcommittee also supported a program that works to eliminate the stigma of “substance use disorder” – substance abuse or addiction – and promote increased access to health care and behavioral health services.
The treatment subcommittee advocated for addiction treatment services to be provided at the county jail.
“This should be equivalent to an outpatient treatment program and include counseling and therapy,” says the subcommittee’s written report.
That group also suggested utilizing the Midtown Campus for behavioral health treatment and housing services to provide care for people at any stage of treatment.
“That’s a thing the city has lots of control over,” said Wendy Johnson, a physician at La Familia Medical Center, who acknowledged that some of the task force’s recommendations may not be popular.
Another thing the city could do is provide a bus service to medical clinics to offer easier access for people needing treatment. “Buses don’t stop in front of either La Familia clinic, and they ought to,” she said.
The task force discussed using an assessment matrix to help organize and determine which suggestions make the final list of recommendations. It would include such categories as short- and long-term recommendations, effectiveness, cost, sustainability, equity and unintended consequences that could result. It was suggested that another category be added to identify what the city’s role would be in implementing the recommendation.
“We need to make clear in our recommendations what role the city has,” whether it’s to advocate for, help fund, or provide a service, Kaltenbach said.