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A way forward for fighting the drug crisis

A city drug strategy task force’s recommendations include suggestions for expanded needle exchanges and for needle disposal and collection.

A Santa Fe city task force set up to address the problem of opioid addiction and other problems from drug or alcohol abuse has backed off from some of the more “outside the box” ideas it was considering last year.

The group’s completed report just presented to the City Council, for instance, doesn’t call for decriminalizing personal drug use altogether (something the city couldn’t do on its own), which was a subcommittee suggestion brought forth in 2019.

But the report of the Municipal Drug Strategy Task Force still includes some notable proposals, with an overall focus on moving “away from arresting and jailing people, and shifting toward a public health social service setting,” as task force chair Emily Kaltenbach puts it.

Some of the ideas: providing injectable opioid treatment; distributing the overdose-reversal drug naloxone in public places, such as grocery stores, and even in “overdose response boxes” in parks and elsewhere; and “sharps” boxes in parks for disposal of needles.

In injectable opioid treatment, a patient is given pharmaceutical heroin in a clinical setting, an effort to remove the person from the trauma and dangers of non-supervised addiction before progressing to other therapies.

“Studies have shown that those enrolled in injectable opioid treatment demonstrate a reduction in drug use and improvement in overall physical and mental health,” the report states.

The task force also calls for creation of a new city position for a “point person” focused on drug policy, treatment and harm reduction who would conduct research and coordinate across various city departments.

The task force suggests a new funding stream could be created by imposing a tax on second homes, introducing a local cannabis tax or allocating money from settlements with companies that manufactured opioids.

Kaltenbach told the City Council Wednesday that it’s important that people who take medication for their addictions get their drugs if incarcerated. She said the Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque has a methadone program.

The report also includes recommendations on housing, such as support for “harm reduction” housing for the homeless or those with substance abuse problems, and banning questions on rental applications about prior convictions or medical cannabis status; incorporating public health into the city’s public safety agencies, such as the police and fire departments; and support of a Santa Fe Public Schools’ “science-based and compassionate” pilot drug education program.

One task force idea under consideration last year, but not included in the final report is using a portion of the city’s Midtown Campus, where plans for a major redevelopment are under consideration, for substance abuse recovery.

A respected residential drug treatment program is already temporarily using what once were college apartments on the campus. The Journal North continues to support allowing the drug program to remain on the city’s site, where hundreds of apartments, commercial uses, education and film-related programs are expected to be developed as part of the Midtown project.

The city can’t complain about NIMBY neighborhoods objecting to non-single family land uses if it’s going to eject a well-run drug treatment program from its own development plan on city property.

The Drug Strategy Task Force shows a way forward for Santa Fe to address the opiate crisis and other substance abuse issues. Some of the ideas may still be too far out of the box for city policymakers, but City Hall now has a road map to follow.

It’s the job of the mayor and City Council to make sure it doesn’t end up on a shelf, gathering dust.