Northampton City Council Indicates Support for Full Drug Decriminalization

A resolution calls on NPD to limit drug enforcement, particularly for psychedelic plants

By Brian Zayatz

In a 7-0 vote, Northampton City Council passed in first reading a non-binding resolution declaring drug use and possession to be a public health issue, rather than criminal. As such, the resolution directs the Northampton Police Department to treat all drug use and possession as “amongst the lowest law enforcement priority,” and specifically singles out entheogenic, or psychedelic, plants and fungi with even stronger language against enforcement of growth or distribution. The city joins Somerville and Cambridge in passing resolutions to this effect.

The resolution was introduced by Councilors Rachel Maiore (Ward 7) and Bill Dwight (At-Large), and originated in collaboration with resident Dan Bensonoff. Bensonoff told The Shoestring he has used entheogenic plants for “personal growth and reflection” in his adult life, and was inspired by Oregon’s blanket drug decriminalization by ballot initiative last year to see if anyone was working on the issue on the local level. “I was pointed to a group called Bay Staters for Natural Medicine,” Bensonoff said, “[which] had started to work on city resolutions and ordinances that would hopefully feed up to the state level.”

In lobbying for a Northampton resolution, Bensonoff said he reached out to as many city councilors as he could, starting with his own, Councilor Jim Nash. “Councilor Maiore was really the one who really understood the importance of this,” he said, though he was also “really surprised by the reception, which was really positive. Drugs have historically been a non-starter for politicians, but cannabis changed that, I think.” Bensonoff thought the positive experience the city has had with cannabis made councilors open to the idea of decriminalization, and also noted the importance of Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind, which Councilor Dwight cited during discussion, in mainstreaming entheogenic plants.

Councilor Dwight, in introducing the resolution, spoke of the history of US drug prohibition, which he argued has always had to do with who the US was trying to colonize or vilify, pointing to the original hearings in which marijuana prohibition began, which was full of racially incendiary language he dared not repeat. In a later comment, he also highlighted Northampton’s history of leading the state in harm reduction measures, such as the city’s first-in-the-state needle exchange.

Though outnumbered by speakers advocating for and against new zoning changes, public comment saw nine individuals speak in support of the resolution. Some spoke generally in favor of the decriminalization of all drugs, while others shared their personal experiences with entheogenic plants. Jenava Jenkins told the Council that “psychedelic mushrooms saved my life,” recounting difficulties with childhood trauma, PTSD, anxiety, depression, and a dissociative disorder. “After taking them just once, the benefits are lifelong,” said Jenkins. Bensonoff called them “potent medicines” to be treated with respect, and said he knows many people who would benefit from their use but would never go near them due to their legal status.

On that note, Councilor Michael Quinlan (Ward 1) said during discussion that he felt the resolution was “a little unfair to the community” to non-bindingly charge the police with changing their own priorities, since it could create a gray area in which drug users wouldn’t know if they might be arrested or not. Councilor Maiore said via email to The Shoestring that “the idea is not to leave anything up to the discretion of individual police officers. We are asking that the NPD have a policy of not enforcing controlled substance possession. The language I used came from the Somerville legal Dept and was thought to be the most practical way to make an ask for a policy.”

“Of course this is all non-binding, but it is an advocacy piece; and now the NPD knows the express will of [the] Council,” Councilor Maiore continued. “I also thought it would also be useful in the days ahead getting Councilors on the record supporting the concept of decriminalization,” she said, referring to the approaching budget season in which the Council will face pressure from the public to continue shrinking the policing budget and redirect funds towards a new department of public safety.

“I’m gonna be looking at any data we can get around arrests related to controlled substances,” Bensonoff said of his next steps. “I’d like to see that number ultimately going down. What I’d also like to see is more money being spent on harm reduction,” though he said he needed to do more research on what was needed in Northampton, specifically. He also said he’d be directing his energies toward the state level, where a bill has been drafted that would set up a task force for reviewing the state’s drug policy (the Northampton resolution endorses this bill). Following a year of “racial reckoning,” Bensonoff hopes drug policy reform will be a key part of reducing conflict between communities and police.

The resolution also calls upon other city officials to approach the topic of controlled substances “primarily through the lens of public health and restorative racial justice initiatives when representing the city in conversations with state and federal agencies as well as state and federal lawmakers,” and urges District Attorney David E. Sullivan to cease prosecution of drug possession and use. It was passed with ‘yes’ votes from all Councilors except Councilor John Thorpe (Ward 4), who abstained due to his employment as a parole officer. The Council will take its second vote on the resolution on April 1st.

Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor and new staff writer at The Shoestring. 

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