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One Toke Over the Line?

The Office of National Drug Control Policy recently announced an initiative to crack down on drug-impaired drivers, and was met immediately with a barrage of criticism from groups calling the initiative a sham.

“ONDCP’s new initiative is a thinly disguised zero-tolerance policy that will do little to detect impaired driving and much to punish responsible citizens for crimes they did not commit,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of Drug Policy Alliance, a group touting itself as the nation’s leading organization working to end the war on drugs.

The Drug Policy Alliance argues that law enforcement officials will fail to distinguish between evidence of use and actual impairment, under the new initiative. “The goal is to ensure safety on the roads,” said Nadelmann. “That will not happen by severely punishing someone who smoked a joint in the privacy of their own home the night before.”

Citing evidence that traces of marijuana stay in the body for up to two weeks, critics claim that sober drivers could have their licenses taken away and be prosecuted as criminals if new roadside drug testing techniques are implemented.

Tom Riley of the ONDCP dismisses claims that the new initiative is a plan to target marijuana users under the guise of a safe-driving campaign. He admits that the ONDCP is supporting the development of technologies that could detect drug impairment at traffic stops, but insists that no such technologies are going immediately into use. “The purpose of this exercise is to draw attention to the fact that a lot of people are driving under the influence of drugs,” he said.

While the dangers of drunk driving have become increasingly ingrained in the public consciousness, drugged driving is a problem that many Americans remain unaware of, claims the ONDCP. Riley argues that efforts to raise public awareness are largely responsible for the reduction of alcohol-related deaths on American roadways, and says that he’d like to see a similar reduction in drug-related deaths as a result of the current campaign.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that illegal drug use is involved in 10 to 22 percent of all motor vehicle crashes. Riley claims that even if these statistics are grossly inflated, reducing drugged driving will save thousands of lives.

To accomplish this, the ONDCP has begun airing a television commercial aimed at teenagers, meant to highlight the dangers of driving while high. Two more commercials will begin airing next month.

—Paul Hamill

Workers Strike, Residents Strike Out

“This is about resident care,” shouted picketers outside the Guilderland Center and Rosewood Gardens nursing homes last week, as stalling labor negotiations with management resulted in an estimated 160 workers walking off the job for three days.

“The permanent employees say residents are like family,” said Janet Parsons, who has been a licensed practical nurse at Guilderland Center for four years, and who participated in the strike. “Now they are being cared for by strangers, and this is very disconcerting to the residents.”

Workers said they went on strike from Nov. 21 through Nov. 23 because their employer, Highgate Management Llc., refuses to bargain with representatives from their labor union, 1199 Service Employees International. Employees from both adult-care facilities are asking their employers, who own six nursing homes statewide, to provide workers with better wages and benefits. Employees are also asking for more supplies and staffing to better care for residents.

Representatives from Highgate Management Llc. did not return calls for comment prior to publication, but did release a statement to local media, saying that “meaningful discussions . . . continue with labor officials although no resolution appears imminent.” A previously scheduled round of discussions between union representatives and management took place after the strikes, and a spokesman from 1199 SEIU characterized them as “not bad.”

“We made no agreements or resolutions on the contract, but the owners showed up at the table for the first time,” said John Joyce, 1199 SEIU spokesman. “In that respect the strike was success. We wanted the owners to come to the bargaining table and negotiate in good faith, and we see things as moving forward.”

Workers from Staffing by Priority, a temporary-employment agency also owned by Highgate Management Llc., cared for residents at the two nursing homes during the strike. Representatives from the New York State Department of Health, which monitored patient care at the two homes during the strike, said staffing levels were adequate, but adequate care doesn’t cut it for family members of some residents.

“During the strike it was awful,” said Lia Bott, whose grandfather is a resident at Rosewood Gardens. “Agency people stood around in groups and laughed, some of the residents didn’t get fed. It was like pulling teeth to get [my grandfather] changed. I was glad to see the regular aide when he came back to work.”

—Travis Durfee

Surfing for Contaminates

A new Web site, unveiled last Thursday by the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition, promises New Yorkers an overall picture of pollution concerns in their neighborhoods.

According to CEC codirector Kathy Curtis, this is the first Web site of its kind where New Yorkers can go and find all the information that they would need to assess possible pollution hazards in their community. In the past, she explained, people would have to spend countless hours searching the Web, going to various sites to obtain an overall environmental picture of their area. But now people can zoom in on maps of their community and get all of the information in one stop. www.ecoTHREATNY.org provides viewable pollution sources and maps showing toxic-waste dumps, levels of water pollution, emission sources, radioactive waste sites, oil spills, solid-waste landfills, and air-pollution sources.

“If someone were to purchase a home,” explained Curtis, “and wanted to investigate the area where they were about to move to, from an environmental perspective, all they would have to do is go to the Web site and map out what is happening in that particular location.”

For example, in Albany County alone, the Web site shows 19 Superfund toxic waste sites, 25 facilities required to report their toxic-release inventory, and 56 industrial, commercial or municipal water-pollution sources.

“There are so many different environmental problems, it’s difficult to see the big picture,” said CEC codirector Bobbie Chase. “People deserve to have access to this information, and now they can get the knowledge they need to protect their families, help change failed regulatory policies and prevent pollution. It’s one-stop shopping, with no need to devote months wandering through the maze.”

ecoTHREATNY.org also provides text-based pages that explain each type of pollution, links to key government nonprofit and community groups, and pollution prevention tips for the home.

—N.G.


Still searching: Lonnie Palmer. Photo by Teri Currie.

How to Displace a Sixth Grader

According to the superintendent of the city school district, Albany fifth-graders graduating to sixth grade in 2004 may end up with no place to go due to delays in the plan to build a third middle school in the city.

“We’ll end up in trailers somewhere if we don’t solve this problem,” said Lonnie Palmer, the district superintendent.

For the 2004 school year, the school district wanted to open a new middle school, the city’s third, in Westland Hills Park. The opening of the school was to coincide with the district’s reconfiguration of its grade structure, where elementary schools would house students in grades k-5 and middle schools would expand to include students in grades 6-8. But because the district wanted to build the new middle school on public parkland, and federal money was spent on improvements in Westland Hills Park, the district needed National Park Service approval before it could go forward with its proposal. The park service requires environmental impact studies on both the construction of the new school and the conversion of replacement parkland.

But Palmer said a Nov. 14 letter from the state office of Parks, Recreations and Historic Preservation, speaking on behalf of NPS and informing the school district that it would have to provide further environmental review, came too late.

“What’s so frustrating about all this, is if somebody would have said to us last summer, ‘You’ve got to jump these hurdles before we can agree to it,’ we could’ve gotten that done,” said Palmer. “But to do that now creates a year’s delay and significant cost problems.”

Palmer estimates that inflation on the existing costs of construction, and temporarily housing and busing the displaced sixth graders, could cost the district an additional $1.5 million. The Albany City School Board will meet on Dec. 10 to decide if it should continue its pursuit of a third middle school in Westland Hills or begin plans for a new school elsewhere.

“Our kids are in buildings that are over 90 years old on average—they need new schools,” Palmer said. “They are not accessible for the disabled, they don’t have modern class size and the amenities necessary for an education today. Somebody ought to start thinking about that.”

—T. D.


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