The State House is filled with activists and advocates, all hoping their lobbying efforts will yield new laws. We’ve invited some of them to answer our own questionnaire.
What’s your top legislative/policy priority this session?
As the name of our organization suggests, we are committed to repealing mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. The opiate crisis has brought into stark relief the fact that defining drug abuse and addiction as criminal justice issues has been an abject failure. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws actually prevent those drug offenders who are addicts from getting treatment because there’s only one outcome allowed: a prison cell.
The many low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who don’t deserve lengthy, “one size fits all” prison sentences, as well as taxpayers who for decades have shouldered the cost of warehousing nonviolent drug offenders.
Who are your biggest champions in the State House?
Senator Cynthia Creem and Representative Benjamin Swan have been longtime champions of smarter and more effective drug sentencing laws. We also now have the Harm Reduction and Drug Law Reform Caucus, led by Senator Jamie Eldridge and Representative Tom Sannicandro. The caucus brings new enthusiasm for meaningful change.
What gives you reason to be hopeful?
The new focus on the demand side of the drug trade: the growing recognition that addicts and substance abusers need help. The recent progress around insurance coverage and more treatment beds will be critical to creating healthy communities and saving lives.
What gives you reason to be cautious?
The misunderstanding of the supply side of the drug trade: the belief that users and sellers are two distinct groups, divided by a bright line. Sometimes that’s true, but there are many low-level players in the drug trade who sell drugs, or help someone else sell drugs, in order to support their addiction. Some addicts can maintain a regular job, at least until their lives start to deteriorate. But then they’ll start to steal or sell their bodies for money, or, the most direct route of all, sell drugs themselves. Ask the family of any addict. If we insist on a paradigm that doesn’t reflect the reality of addiction, we’ll continue to fail.
What’s your proudest accomplishment at work?
Actually changing the law: the 2010 reforms, the first since mandatory minimums were enacted in the 1980s, and the 2012 reforms that went significantly further. Our members were overjoyed in 2012, as fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, even grandparents proved themselves worthy of parole and went home to their families. I have pens from both bill-signing ceremonies on display above my desk. They may be plastic, but they are worth their weight in gold to people whose lives have been turned upside down by bad policy.
Who’s your role model/hero?
All the families who stick by their loved ones through the worst times in their lives — addiction and prison. They face challenges that most of us can’t even imagine. Yet they keep going, day after day and year after year, with grace and courage. I am awed by their unconditional love for the family member who is struggling.
What book are you reading now?
Elizabeth Gilbert’s “The Signature of All Things,” about a botanist in the 1800s. As a lawyer, I can relate to the heroine’s quest for orderly systems that make sense, that are based on evidence rather than conjecture.
What’s the biggest misconception about your group?
That we are pro-drugs or pro-legalization, that we don’t appreciate the harm that drug abuse can cause.
What was your most recent interaction with the Baker administration?
We did polling of candidates last fall for pre-primary and pre-general election voters’ guides, and sent our questionnaire to the Baker campaign.
How did it go?
Great! We got a prompt and straightforward response, which was refreshing. The governor said that he favored the repeal of mandatory minimums, adding, “I believe reforming minimum sentences could be part of an overall strategy to rethink how those with substance abuse issues are treated.” We look forward to working with him and his administration.