N.M. public health order isn’t only about guns

ACLU raises concerns about criminalization of young people

BY:  - SEPTEMBER 12, 2023 4:35 AM

Shown are bags of heroin, some laced with fentanyl, on display before a press conference on a major drug bust, at the office of the New York Attorney General, Sept. 23, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer / Getty Images)Media and public attention has so far focused mostly on the parts of the New Mexico public health order related to firearms. The executive action signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last week does a number of other things.

One of the two executive orders that provide the rationale for the public health order is entirely focused on what the governor’s administration refers to as “a growing and alarming trend of drug abuse.”

Lujan Grisham signed Executive Order 2023-132 on Sept. 8, the day before her health secretary signed the public health order. She wrote that drug use has resulted in a strain on health care resources, increased crime rates, homelessness and “disrupted family structures.”

“The State’s existing efforts to combat drug abuse, including prevention, treatment, and law enforcement initiatives, require immediate reinforcement and coordination to effectively address this public health crisis,” Lujan Grisham wrote in the order. “It is essential to marshal all available resources to mitigate the harms caused by drug abuse and to provide support and treatment options for individuals and families affected by this epidemic.”

The executive order on drugs cites data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing there were 1,501 fatal overdoses reported in New Mexico in 2021, resulting in the fifth highest overdose rate in the United States.

In the order, Lujan Grisham attributed a surge in fatal overdoses to the accessibility and prevalence of synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

However, the public health order putting the executive orders into practice does not mention any support or treatment for drug users.

On Friday night, Source NM asked the governor’s office for the big picture public health reasoning for the new executive order. We asked to talk about how the order could save lives and prevent harm from a public health standpoint.

The public health order includes detailed plans for the New Mexico Department of Health to make a report on gun violence. We asked for the administration’s thinking around that data collection effort.

We also asked for examples that could be used to explain what the public health order does and how it could work.

A spokesperson for the governor on Monday said there would be a response to those questions. By Monday evening there was no answer. We will update when and if we do receive a response.

ACLU warns about criminalization of young New Mexicans

On Monday, the New Mexico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union released a statement raising concerns that Lujan Grisham’s use of emergency powers could lead to overzealous policing and senseless incarceration.

ACLU of New Mexico litigation manager Lalita Moskowitz said that Lujan Grisham’s solution to substance use disorder and gun violence “is to pour more resources into law enforcement.”

“Historically, this kind of approach leads to the over-policing of our communities, racial profiling, and increased misery in the lives of already marginalized people,” Moskowitz said. “Instead, (Gov. Lujan Grisham) should be following evidence-based solutions such as meaningful diversion and violence intervention programs and addressing the root causes of violence.”

Moskowitz said initiatives that prioritize treatment and improve access to services to facilitate recovery are “far more effective than criminalization or incarceration.”

Testing sewers for drugs

The public health order also directs the state health and environmental departments to test sewer systems at all public schools for drugs, specifically fentanyl.

“The children and youth of New Mexico are particularly vulnerable to the negative impacts of drug abuse, as evidenced by the rising number of cases involving parental substance abuse and its subsequent effect on child welfare,” Lujan Grisham wrote in the executive order on drugs.

Source NM asked the governor’s office if this part of the order applies statewide, or is limited to Albuquerque and Bernalillo County like the firearm possession provision.

We’ve also asked if any schools in the state are prepared to do this kind of testing, how the state agencies will do the testing and when it will begin.

Moskowitz said the fentanyl crisis is severe, but the ACLU opposes “any actions that risk further criminalizing our youth or individuals struggling with addiction.”

Juvenile program suspended

The order also directs the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department to immediately suspend the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative and to “evaluate juvenile probation protocols.”

The program helps children avoid juvenile prison, Moskowitz said, and the ACLU is deeply concerned about the governor’s decision to suspend it.

“We know that incarceration during childhood increases the likelihood that someone will end up in the adult criminal system,” Moskowitz said. “Ending a program that helps young people find a different path is counterproductive to public safety.”

Source NM has asked the governor’s office how the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative and juvenile probation are the source of gun violence.

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Austin Fisher


Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.

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