“Perhaps no one and nothing else in New York City better represents the worst history of the War on Drugs than Bridget Brennan and the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor,” wrote Rory Fleming in an October 2019 article for Filter.
His piece criticized both the existence of a dedicated, unelected drug-warrior role that no other US city has and the anti-reform conduct of the incumbent.
On January 16, Janos Marton—a civil rights lawyer and decarceration activist who is running for Manhattan district attorney—released a policy paper calling for the abolition of the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor, which quoted Fleming’s Filter article at the top.
Fleming is not affiliated with the campaign. “But when we were working on this issue, his article was helpful,” Marton said.
In the policy paper, Marton deploys similar arguments to Fleming in addressing how New York City’s Special Narcotics Prosecutor inherently “stands in the way of reforming drug policy”—and how Bridget Brennan, who has held the role for 22 years, “uses her office as a blunt instrument to prosecute over a thousand defendants a year” and has failed to evolve. Brennan claimed in 2019, for example, that safe consumption sites would come “at the expense of public safety.”
Marton’s three-point implementation plan includes:
* retracting all staff and resources that the Manhattan DA currently provides to the Special Narcotics Prosecutor (and, “on Day One,” removing the assistant district attorneys that constitute over 80 percent of the Office’s staff )
* supporting legislation to abolish the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor and reinvest its $22 million budget in harm reduction programs
* removing Brennan from her position in the interim
Marton’s wider positions hold much in common with leading drug policy reform organizations. His general drug policy paper attacks the War on Drugs for its “pursuit of punishment” through high and racially biased arrest and incarceration rates, and for its failures to reduce drug-related harms and protect communities. This all reflects, he says, an “antiquated, ineffectual ‘Just Say No’ approach.”
In addition to abolishing Brennan’s role, Marton says he would decline to prosecute “low-level” possession of all drugs; support public health interventions such as safe consumption sites; support social equity provisions within marijuana legalization; and “explore employment-based diversion programs” for people who sell drugs.
“We intend for this to be the boldest campaign for district attorney that this country has seen,” Marton told Filter. “We will be organizing in communities most directly impacted by mass incarceration and the War on Drugs, and completely transforming this office to hold powerful people accountable and help people who are struggling get their lives back on track.”
Marton, 37, became a member of Students for Sensible Drug Policy at the age of 17 and has been involved in the #CloseRikers campaign in recent years. “I’ve understood the immorality and ineffectiveness of the War on Drugs since I was a teenager of color growing up in Rudy Giuliani’s New York,” he said. “This issue is personal to me.”
Asked how he sees his prospects of success with this platform, he replied: “New York City has long claimed to be a progressive bastion, and Manhattan Democrats in particular have a proud liberal tradition. I am confident that when Democratic primary voters hear our message, they will embrace a different vision for criminal justice.”
Marton will face off in the 2021 Democratic primary against Cyrus Vance Jr., who has been Manhattan’s district attorney since 2010. Vance supports certain reforms, including safe consumption sites. He also promised in 2017—the year he won a third term uncontested—to end low-level marijuana arrests in the jurisdiction, but such arrests continued, as Filter reported in 2019.
Alvin Bragg, a New York Law School professor and former state chief deputy attorney general, is another confirmed candidate, who is also running on a reform platform.
Photo of Marton campaigning in September 2019 via the campaign Facebook page.