Eric Adams as NYC Mayor: What Could It Mean for Harm Reduction?

    Eric Adams—the Brooklyn borough president, former state senator and former NYPD captain—is now the Democratic candidate for New York City mayor. The Associated Press finally called the contentious primary race on July 6, two weeks after election day, with Adams holding a lead of less than 1 percent over second-place contender Kathryn Garcia. In the heavily Democratic city, Adams is now extremely likely to become mayor.

    Adams, who would be the first Black NYC mayor in nearly 30 years, is set to inherit a dizzying portfolio of problems. New York is struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. It faces a homelessness and affordable housing crisis of historic proportions, also aggravated by the COVID economic recession. Drug overdose deaths, aggravated by the pandemic and fentanyl-adulterated street supplies, continue to claim the lives of thousands of New Yorkers each year.

    The city is also central to the debate about violent and racist policing in America. The NYPD is facing a statewide investigation over its response to last summer’s George Floyd protests. At the same time, NYC faces a rapid and troubling rise in gun violence, to levels not seen in decades. All of these issues overwhelmingly impact the city’s low-income, Black and Latinx neighborhoods.

    Elected officials tasked with responding to these problems have a choice—prioritizing funds to give people basic care and support, or prioritizing funds for police in the unsupported belief that arrests represent solutions. But will Adams favor harm reduction over punishment? Some advocates see a mixed picture.

    when it comes to decriminalization of drugs, he will not be supportive.”

    “Progressives in the city have shifted even moderate Democrats on what is acceptable,” Jeremy Saunders, co-director of VOCAL-NY, told Filter. “Even a candidate like Adams, who opposes defunding the police, is very adamant about ensuring some basic police reforms to not have them violate people’s civil rights. He talks very openly about having been beaten by the cops as a young person and thrown into a juvenile detention center.”

    VOCAL-NY hosted several forums throughout the campaign, asking Adams and other Democratic contenders to state their positions on issues like harm reduction, drug enforcement and policing. Based on Adams’ responses to those questions, Saunders predicts he will be more supportive of harm reduction measures but conservative on police reform.

    “Adams supports legalization of marijuana and reinvesting money in the communities hardest hit by enforcement,” Saunders said. “For a former cop, that’s a positive sign we want to see. He adamantly supported [safe consumption sites] and said we need ‘more than that,’ and describes wraparound services and supportive housing. He will be supportive of harm reduction as a proven health intervention.”

    “But when it comes to decriminalization of drugs, he will not be supportive,” Saunders cautioned. “He really doesn’t even know what that means. In our mayoral forum, he mixed up legalization and decriminalization.”

    When asked about decriminalization at a March forum, Adams responded, “I don’t support legalizing crack cocaine … or heroin or hard serious drugs.”  

    Adams also refused to answer if he would abolish the NYC Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor, a unique, Rockefeller-era office that’s independent of all five city boroughs and solely focused on “higher-level” drug charges. “There’s caveats and I don’t want to be misquoted,” Adams said at the time.

    Adams has also been unclear about what he thinks the NYPD should focus on. Cities across the nation are debating removing police from assignments responding to homelessness, mental health issues, drug use and overdose and even traffic offenses. Advocates hope that giving police less jurisdiction over social problems will prevent violent or fatal encounters with civilians.

    Adams refused to answer if he would remove the NYPD from calls relating to homelessness, responding, “I want clarity before I say ‘Yes’ to something.” He also hedged on calls regarding drug use and mental health, saying, “I believe the overwhelming number of cases don’t need police to be there. But in certain situations, you need to police to protect the lives of the person in crisis, their family members and the mental health professional.”

    “We’re happy to publicly lose some of these fights as long as we are seeing meaningful change.”

    Saunders emphasized that while progressive candidates performed poorly in this election, progressive ideas are winning over candidates who wouldn’t be placed in that lane. 

    “We have been winning the fight overall,” he said. “Even moderate candidates who bash our messaging like ‘defund’ or ‘decriminalization,’ even those candidates for the most part adopt and support our demands. We’re happy to publicly lose some of these fights as long as we are seeing meaningful change that improves people’s lives. That’s demonstrated by a moderate former police officer like Adams supporting overdose prevention centers and legalization with reinvestment.”

    Saunders said this holds true in other city elections, such as the Manhattan district attorney race: Alvin Bragg, who just clinched the Democratic primary, was not the most progressive candidate. But on all issues, he is significantly to the left of outgoing DA Cyrus Vance Jr.

    Adams will face Republican nominee Curtis Sliwa in the general election in November. Many assume Adams will win easily.

    Adams is no radical opponent of the drug war. But if his promises to support public health and harm reduction, at least, ring true, the lives of many thousands of vulnerable New Yorkers could still be measurably improved.



    Photograph of Adams in 2018 by Krystalb97 via WikiMedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0.

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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