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Updated: July 30, 2022, 10:22 AM

New York City drug busts decline while overdose deaths soar

By Kathianne Boniello, Matthew Sedacca and Melissa Klein

Arrests and convictions for major narcotics dealing and possession have plunged across the Big Apple — a troubling trend that critics say is in part fueled by the progressive ideology that has wreaked havoc on law and order in other large US cities.

From 2019 to 2021, busts for all felony drug sales in the five boroughs plummeted 28%, from 3,409 to 2,452, and convictions during the same span fell a staggering 52%, from 2,911 in to 1,380, according to data from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, reviewed by The Post.

And even as the pandemic subsided, enforcement did not increase. In the first three months of this year, there were just 627 arrests citywide, a 38% decline compared to the first quarter of 2019, the stats show.

The disturbing numbers come even as evidence suggests dangerous drug use is on the rise — with overdose deaths surging, addicts brazenly shooting up in public, and drug-fueled crime and violence making a comeback.

“If we don’t return to responsible policing when it comes to drugs, you’re going to turn into San Francisco,” warned Christopher Dale, a former addict who used to live in Brooklyn and whose memoir “Better Halves” is out in November. “San Francisco is a miniature scale model of what we don’t want to become.”

Residents of that city tired of feeling unsafe — and with an avalanche of addicts on the streets — recently recalled District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who enacted several reforms, including ending cash bail.

In the Big Apple, progressive DAs who don’t want to prosecute unless it fits a particular agenda, and police officers who have been villainized for doing their jobs have led to criminals being emboldened, experts said.

“To me it’s profoundly disturbing that our criminal justice system is being operated on false pretenses,” said John Jay College professor Eugene O’Donnell, a former NYPD officer and prosecutor. “The pretense is that there’s a stated law [and] you run the risk if you break the law that … prosecutors will hold them accountable.”

The state data for felony narcotics crimes from 2019 through the first quarter of 2022 shows that:

  • Convictions for drug sales fell to 378 for the first quarter of this year, less than half of what they were during the first quarter of 2019.
  • While 78 percent of all sales cases resulted in a conviction in 2019, just 57 percent did in 2021.
  • Arrest numbers for drug sales have so far bounced back only in Manhattan, with 706 busts last year, about the same as in 2019.
  • Busts for felony drug possession fell by 48% from 5,482 in 2019 to 2,849 in 2021. There were 752 arrests during the first quarter of 2022, about half of what they were in the first quarter of 2019.
  • Drug possession convictions fell by 56% percent from 3,743 in 2019 to 1,631 in 2021, with 421 this year.

The declining enforcement coincides with the state’s controversial bail reform laws and declining morale in an understaffed NYPD struggling with rising crime — and comes amid a push to reduce fatal overdoses by using a more compassionate approach.

But despite ads urging addicts to use safely, and legal shooting galleries giving them a place to get high, the city’s streets have been plagued with drug users — with many turning to crime to support their habit.

Serial shoplifter Isaac Rodriguez, who had 46 retail theft arrests in 2021, told The Post he stole to buy drugs and was actually hoping his stint in the slammer would help him get clean and save his life.

Nationally, drug overdoses deaths reached a record 91,000 in 2020 with 68,000 tied to opioids like fentanyl. In New York, deaths rose to 4,965 in 2020 up from 3,617 a year earlier, a trend also driven by increased fentanyl use, according to officials.

Before their son Paul fatally overdosed on fentanyl-laced cocaine, Robert and Donna Mina of Staten Island recall few, if any services to help him — and allegedly little effort from the NYPD to track down who sold the drugs which killed him.

 “As far as the city, there was really nothing available. He worked with the Parks Department, but no, what the city had open for him was an open market for selling drugs,” the father said.

The couple claims hospitals wouldn’t take in Paul, 32, for detox unless he was drunk. And Donna Mina noted the needle exchange centers didn’t help.

“I mean, it’s like just saying, ‘Here it is,’ ” she said. 

An NYPD detective assigned to investigate their son’s September 2020 death was kind at first, but ultimately didn’t return their calls.

“Effectively this means that drug sales have been legalized,” O’Donnell said of the state stats. “The chances of being apprehended committing one of these serious felony crimes are extraordinarily remote.”

New York legalized marijuana possession in March 2021, but only for 3 ounces of pot outside the home, which likely did not impact felony busts.

Patrick Lynch, the president of the PBA, attributed the decline to a short-staffed department in the middle of “a crime crisis.”

“If New Yorkers want more enforcement, they need to demand a fully staffed NYPD and a criminal justice system that will back us up,” Lynch said.

Major crimes in the city have jumped 37% this year, led by grand larcenies, auto thefts, burglaries and robberies.

“When you’re at 26 shootings [in a weekend], someone selling drugs in front of an apartment building probably isn’t your priority at the moment,” said former Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan, who also represented the borough in Congress.

The rise in crime and violence across New York City could be fueled by multiple aspects of the illegal drug industry, Donovan said.

“We know historically how the two coincide,” he said. “There’s so much money involved. The drug trade causes competitions, it causes rivalries, there’s so much stuff going on that it’s very evident that the correlation really just coincides with the rise in crime.”

The pandemic, which all but shut down the court system, is partially to blame, along with bail reform laws, according to one prosecutor’s office.

“We are still facing a backlog” in court, said Kati Cornell, spokeswoman for Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan, whose office handles larger drug cases.

“As a result of changes to the bail laws, a majority of pre-trial drug defendants are released. This combination of factors has led to fewer drug prosecutions, which take longer to resolve, resulting in an overall decline in dispositions, including convictions,” she added.

Busts for all narcotics crimes, including lower-level misdemeanors like pot possession, are on the rise, the NYPD said, providing general statistics showing a 14% increase to 9,193 arrests year-to-date, but no details.

“They have to do something to those selling these drugs so freely out there,” Robert Mina said. “This fentanyl is killing our children.”

The number of arrests and convictions for felony drug sales and possession have gone down sharply since 2019 through the first quarter of 2022.

Drug sale arrests
2019: 3,409
2020: 1,770
2021: 2,452
2022: 627

Drug possession arrests
2019: 5,482
2020: 3,079
2021: 2,849
2022: 752

Drug sale convictions
2019: 2,911
2020: 902
2021: 1,380
2022: 378

Drug possession convictions

2019: 3,743
2020: 1,195
2021: 1,631
2022: 421

Additional reporting by Dean Balsamini
Source: New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services