The focus of drug policy reform is rarely alcohol, but students in the New Paltz Chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) made it their focus at the end of the fall semester.
Open container laws have been a long debated issue in the United States, with conflicting and sometimes confusing laws, for each state has different policies.
“Laws against drinking in public places — streets, sidewalks, parks, beaches, stadiums — vary wildly from state to state, city to city and in some places, from block to block,” said Joe Satran in his Huffington Post article, “The Secret History of the War on Public Drinking.”
New York City took steps to calm this war back in March of 2016. “Manhattan rolled back the scope of its local open container laws, allowing people to drink alcohol from open containers in public areas without fear of arrest,” according to Alcohol.Org.
In the words of New York State Chief Administrative Judge, Lawrence K. Marks, this was a “common sense approach” that would allow the NYPD to devote its time and resources to more serious matters.
“New York City continues to prove that we can have both more safety and fewer arrests,” said Elizabeth Glazer, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, in a press release.
More safety and fewer arrests is exactly what’s on the agenda of the New Paltz Students for Sensible Drug Policy. According to Patrick Salaway, who is the club leader, “open containers are currently the no.1 cause of arrests in New Paltz.”
The club began taking an interest in this issue after the alleged police brutality against two young women due to their possession of open alcohol containers.
“They were reportedly thrown against a cop car, handcuffed, and detained for a half hour,” Salaway said.
This was the catalyst for the formation of a petition calling for New Paltz to follow in Manhattan’s footsteps to decriminalize the possession of open containers.
“The petition didn’t take long to formulate, but getting the attention of the village board hasn’t been easy,” Salaway bemoaned. The town of New Paltz has a Town Board and Village Board, and navigating between the two has proven itself difficult for the SSDP policy here on campus.
“One board will often try to claim that what you’re trying to change is the responsibility of the other board,” Salaway continued
Things are looking up, however. According to the club, the district attorney has promised not to prosecute open container arrests while officers are not under instruction to make arrests that will not be prosecuted.
“If they both keep their word the arrests should stop soon, but there’s no guarantee,” Salaway said. He is aware that without a formal change in policy, anything is fair game. When asked, Chief of Police, Mary Ritayik said that officers are currently responding to violations on a “case by case basis,” also stating, “we don’t see many of these on campus.”
The club has the support of Village Trustee, Alexandria Wojcik.
“I support decriminalization and de-stigmatization (and legalization) of drugs including alcohol, but do so with an emphasis in harm reduction,” Wojcik said. Though, it is clear to Salaway and Wojcik that they must continue their efforts to gain more necessary support from the rest of the village board who may or may not be ready to officially make this change.
“In order to propose and fight for legislation that would repeal the local ordinance known as the ‘open container law’ . . . I would need to simultaneously propose and fight for a comprehensive community-wide harm reduction plan,” Wojcik stated.
The SSDP is prepared to take the necessary steps to change this legislation. As Wojcik put it, “the chapter members and myself all [have] a lot more homework to do.” Students like Salaway are eagerly doing their homework. “We will be bringing the petition to a future village board meeting to present to the board and implore them to change [the current laws],” Salaway hopefully said.