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Guest Column: State Sen. Tom O'Mara
"The politics of heroin?"
ALBANY, June 16-- By the end of this week, the State Legislature should have moved New York well on the way toward putting in place a badly needed response to the growing heroin crisis regionally, and statewide.
If so, it will represent one of the critical actions of this year’s legislative session. I hope by now we’ve all heard the message loud and clear: heroin represents one of the most, if not the most, serious public health and safety crises facing us today, one that the governor recently said is spreading “like fire though dry grass.”
Just last week State Police Superintendent Joseph D’Amico added, "Heroin use, heroin sales and related heroin drug overdoses have become a widespread problem that simply must be addressed. A crisis this large must be combated on all fronts."
Combated on all fronts. That’s the key phrase. I couldn’t agree more with the need for a no-holds-barred response to heroin – like the one just approved by the State Senate.
Last Monday, we said yes to a series of anti-heroin measures that offer an all-out response. The Senate’s proposed strategy is the product of our Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction. Over the course of several weeks beginning in early April, the task force conducted nearly 20 public forums (including one I sponsored at Elmira College), covered thousands of miles and listened to more than 50 hours of testimony. We heard from regional law enforcement officers and leaders, drug addiction counselors, treatment providers, educators, social services and mental health professionals, and other experts – as well as recovering addicts -- about the range of complex challenges posed by heroin including addiction prevention and treatment options, drug-related crimes, and other community and public safety impacts.
As a result, the comprehensive anti-heroin strategy I’m co-sponsoring calls for a combination of enhanced awareness and education, more effective prevention and treatment strategies and, equally important, tougher laws and law enforcement.
It’s on this last point, however – tougher laws – where politics is injecting itself into the heroin debate. It looks like we’re running up against a long-standing wall of resistance from the Assembly Democratic leadership against getting too tough on criminals – even our worst criminals, like heroin traffickers. Late last week, unfortunately, some Assembly leaders were signaling that they may not be willing to combat the heroin crisis “on all fronts.”
Let me make it clear that Assembly opposition to tougher laws – laws that supporters like myself believe could serve as deterrents to heinous crimes like dealing heroin, or, at the very least, deliver an appropriate dose of justice to victims -- won’t be a deal breaker. It won’t prevent the enactment of Senate-approved legislation to strengthen awareness and education, or prevention and treatment. There’s clearly some common ground on these fronts, and no one’s going to walk away from the agreements we can readily reach.
But the Assembly, in my view, is dead wrong to turn its back on the law enforcement part of the equation. When it comes to heroin – especially today’s heroin which is more addictive and deadlier than anything we’ve encountered before – it’s not unreasonable to throw the book at major heroin traffickers, or sellers whose narcotics pushing results in a death. At least I don’t think so.
The idea that we “can’t arrest our way out of this crisis” was repeatedly expressed at the Senate task force hearings, including by law enforcement and district attorneys. Of course we can’t, but that doesn’t mean we can afford to ignore strong laws and law enforcement.
I clearly recognize the importance of law enforcement in addressing this particular threat to public health and safety. I applaud the state’s recent action to deploy 100 additional, experienced investigators to the State Police Community Narcotics Enforcement Team (CNET) to aggressively combat heroin trafficking. Maybe the governor can help bring the Assembly around. It seems like we should back up our Troopers with tougher laws like the few of those proposed by the Senate.
We’ll soon know what the Assembly decides to do. But we already know that we need to act now to save lives, and we’re going to act. By week’s end, we should be on our way to responding to the heroin crisis much more forcefully – and hopefully with the stronger criminal penalties that I firmly believe should be part of our response.
Photo in text: State Senator Tom O'Mara
Schuyler County Officials
Top row (from left): Dennis Fagan, Jim Howell, Michael Lausell, Van Harp
Bottom row: Tom Gifford, Barbara Halpin, Phil Barnes, Stewart Field.
Dennis Fagan, Tyrone 607-292-3687
Thomas M. Gifford, 535-9517
Barbara Halpin, 594-3683
Phil Barnes, Watkins Glen, 481-0482
Stewart Field, Watkins Glen, 535-2335
County Clerk: Linda Compton, 535-8133
Sheriff: William Yessman, 535-8222
Undersheriff: Breck Spaulding, 535-8222
County Treasurer: Gary Whyman, 535-8181
District Attorney: Joseph Fazzary, 535-8383
State, Federal Officials for Schuyler County
Sen. Charles E. Schumer
United States Senate
Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand
United States Senate
State Senator Tom O'Mara -- Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben, Yates, western Tompkins, Enfield, Ithaca (Town and City), Newfield, Ulysses(Trumansburg)
Room 812, Legislative Office Building
Assemblyman Phil Palmesano--
Steuben, Schuyler, Yates
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869