Which Manhattan DA Candidates Stand Out on Drugs?

February 2, 2021

After the December 2020 exit of a progressive candidate with a bold drug policy reform platform from the Manhattan district attorney race, two other progressives are arguing that they will make the biggest dent in the war against people who use drugs.

On December 14, criminal justice reformer Janos Marton announced he was ending his campaign. His policies included abolishing the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor—a division created in 1971 by former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller at the dawn of the state’s modern reboot of the drug war, and solely tasked with prosecuting drug felonies.

“We were the only campaign in the race to release a comprehensive drug policy platform, and the centerpiece was abolishing the office of Special Narcotics Prosecutor,” Marton told Filter. “You can’t be serious about ending the War on Drugs if you’re not for abolishing that unaccountable office.” The policy was in part informed by Filter contributor Rory Fleming’s thinking on the issue.

The race remains a crowded field of eight candidates, with many attempting to distinguish themselves as progressive alternatives in a city rocked by reformist protests and abolitionist uprisings over the summer, and in a country where the role of the prosecutor is being reimagined with a bent towards shrinking the criminalization footprint.


Orlins and Aboushi

Two progressive-identifying candidates, public defender Eliza Orlins and civil rights attorney Tahanie Aboushi, are ideologically aligning themselves with Marton by agreeing to eliminate the Special Narcotics Prosecutor. Marton says he’s “glad to see both Orlins and Aboushi have embraced” it, setting them “ahead of the other candidates on that issue, though they could both talk about it more.”

In some of the first candidate debates in the race thus far—one held on January 27 by the organization Color of Change and another the next day by digital media site, The AppealAboushi and Orlins worked to stake their place as the most progressive candidates. They commit to cutting the Manhattan DA budget in half, making them the only candidates to agree to every policy outlined in a candidate questionnaire administered by Color of Change, ranging from refusing to ever seek life sentences to not prosecuting resisting-arrest charges.

“Prosecutors spend their days ruining people’s lives.”

Orlins brands herself as an insider of the criminal legal system—just on the opposing side to the prosecutors. “I’ve represented over 3,000 people charged with crimes in Manhattan who couldn’t afford [an attorney]. I’ve seen the way in which the treatment they received by our court can change their lives,” she told Filter in an interview. “Prosecutors spend their days ruining people’s lives, and not caring or thinking about the human beings.”

For Aboushi, it’s personal. “Having my father serve 22 years in prison undoubtedly influences how I approach the need to reform the justice system,” she told Filter in a statement, though adding “my lived experience outside of this experience also informed my positions. Growing up in an over-policed and over-prosecuted community and working as a criminal defense and civil litigator, gives me the personal and professional experience to understand” the need for criminal-legal reform.


How Many Drug Prosecutions Will They Decline?

When it comes to drugs, both say they will decline to prosecute certain charges, like buy-and-busts for methadone, and reject the use of coercive drug courts. But despite the many similarities of their campaigns, Orlins and Aboushi seem to diverge on the extent to which they believe their offices should decline to prosecute drug cases.

Orlins said she doesn’t believe possession charges up to those in the third degree should be prosecuted. That means she’d decline to prosecute people possessing “with the intent to sell” an eighth-ounce (8-ball, translating to a little more than 3 grams) of methamphetamine, or a half-ounce of a “narcotic drug,” like heroin. She added, though, that her team is still deliberating the exact weights and numbers to be declined. For comparison, Oregon’s decriminalization, effective February 1, only covers less than 2 grams of meth or 1 gram of heroin.

But Orlins stops short of committing to ensuring the legal safety of all people possessing drugs. “I can’t say I’d categorically never prosecute possession because I don’t think people should be bringing in kilos of heroin or fentanyl or crack or anything of the above, because, you know, they’re endangering people in our community,” she said. “Personal possession is different than a truck of 10 kilos.”

The harms of disrupting the supply chain for people who use drugs cannot be overstated. As theorized by cannabis activist Richard Cowan as the “iron law of prohibition,” and corroborated by economists and public-health law scholars alike, supply-side policing, in aggregate, pushes the drug market towards ever-more potent alternatives, like the synthetic fentanyl now involved in most overdoses.

Differently, Aboushi goes all the way. “As DA, I would work to end the War on Drugs by refusing to prosecute any kind of substance possession or use, regardless of weight or type of controlled substance—including methamphetamine, fentanyl, crack cocaine and heroin,” she said. For her, declining to prosecute does not mean declining accountability; that seems to be a subtle difference between her approach and Orlins’ when it comes to drugs.

“For example, when we have major actors selling half-tons or more of heroin or crack, they should be held accountable. But there are other ways we can achieve accountability without relying on drug charges,” wrote Aboushi. “By looking at these cases through a public health perspective my office will be able to get at the root of the problem of cases like these—although I am far more interested in holding corporations that facilitate overprescription of opioids accountable.”

“I would not prosecute charges related to substance use sale, conspiracy, or manufacturing.”

The two candidates also differ on trafficking-related charges. While Orlins said she can only commit to categorically declining what she calls “predatory” buy-and-bust cases that she’s seen as a career public defender to “intentionally target people, disproportionately people of color, disproportionately people with substance use disorders,” Aboushi, again, goes a step further.

“I would not prosecute charges related to substance use sale, conspiracy, or manufacturing,” she said. “Far too often, these charges are applied only to hurt and criminalize low-income or Black and brown people. The only way to eliminate the black market for drugs is to completely decriminalize substances.”

Janos Marton seems hesitant about Aboushi’s bold commitments. “When you get into much larger quantities clearly intended for sale, declining to prosecute at all is at odds with what most community members want,” he said. Despite this skepticism, his conception of accountability seems in line with Aboushi’s. “[H]olding people accountable doesn’t mean you have to use prison; for example, during the campaign we proposed a job-based diversion program for sellers, many of whom I’ve found over the years to be motivated and entrepreneurial.”


Legalization and Sex Work

Despite their differences on possession and trafficking prosecution, Orlins and Aboushi both endorse statutory decriminalization and legalization of all drugs, as well as the more-immediate legalization of cannabis. They also support efforts by activists like VOCAL-NY to establish safe consumption spaces. Aboushi added that she “will work to provide grant programs for already existing safe consumption service providers and will support them in any litigation they are fighting in the courtroom, including the fight to prove that these services should not be illegal.” This support could be key, given the legal battle Philadelphia’s Safehouse is facing.

The statutory decriminalization of the medication buprenorphine and syringes is another policy they both back. The two say they’ll do their part by declining to all the latter cases.

Their progressive positions on decriminalizing economies extend to commercial sex. In addition to declining to prosecute prostitution, solicitation and other related charges involving consensual work, Aboushi and Orlins both support statutory decriminalization of sex work. Orlins, of the two, is the only one who’s outlined specific sex work policy changes—among them, the repeal of the “Walking While Trans” law. She remains steadfast in prosecuting sex trafficking and sexual violence.

Many are talking the talk, Marton believes, but he’s still figuring out who will walk the walk.

Their positions seem to be in line with the New Zealand model, the approach preferred by prominent former Queens District Attorney candidate Tiffany Cabán, who ran an AOC-style campaign. On the opposite end of the reform spectrum is the Nordic Model, in which prosecutors don’t go after sex workers themselves, but instead almost everyone around them. This latter approach has been championed by current Queens DA Melinda Katz, who beat out Cabán.

Marton has yet to endorse any candidate for Manhattan DA. Many are talking the talk, he believes, but he’s still figuring out who will walk the walk.
“There are several candidates who are putting out bold policies, or adopting ours, and the whole field is preaching the gospel of criminal justice reform, all of which is great. What voters need to decide now is who can they trust to implement such a vision—who has the lived and professional experience, the guts, the political skills and the management ability to pull this off. It’s a tall order. I’m hoping to figure it out soon myself.”

Image of Orlins and Aboushi, photographs courtesy of their campaigns
Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard

Sessi is an independent drug journalist and drug-user activist. She lives in New York City.

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