Profile: Advocate Can Point to Results in Updating, Improving Drug Laws

Andrew Kitchenman | February 19, 2014 | Profiles
From needle exchange and medical marijuana laws to Good Samaritan measure, Scotti has had success

Roseanne Scotti
Name: Roseanne Scotti

Job: New Jersey State Director, Drug Policy Alliance

Age: 55

Why she matters: As director of the most prominent group advocating for changes to the state’s drug laws, Scotti has built up a track record for achieving results, including the law allowing needle exchanges for intravenous drug users and New Jersey’s “good Samaritan law” offering immunity to people who seek emergency assistance for those who have drug overdoses.

Finding her calling: Scotti worked in different fields — including managing a sporting goods store — while she worked her way through college, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in folklore.

Scotti took the listening and interviewing skills that taught her and applied them to her next position, as a researcher for the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Studies of Addiction in the HIV Prevention Research Division.

In that job, she visited high-poverty areas of Philadelphia and asked for volunteers to share their experiences with drug addiction, as a way of developing interventions that would lower the risk of exposure to HIV.

The job also made her angry. People she interviewed would be denied places in drug treatment facilities due to a lack of funding but “we always have money for another jail and another jail cell.”

She set about getting a law degree, taking night classes from Temple University while working full-time as a researcher, and thought about a move into advocacy.

Thriving in her position: In 2002, Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann was looking for a state director to open the national organization’s New Jersey office. When Scotti approached him about sponsoring a Temple law journal symposium, Nadelmann was so impressed that he encouraged her to apply and later hired her.

“She is tenacious, she is an excellent strategic thinker, and she’s also a superb tactician and the bottom line is that when she sets her mind to a specific legislative or other reform, one way or another, I know it’s going to get done,” Nadelmann said.

Overcoming obstacles: Although Christie vetoed the first version of the “Good Samaritan” bill, Scotti said, she was disappointed but not discouraged.

“I never give up,” she said. “We were disappointed and some of the hardest calls I ever had to make were to the parents (of overdose victims) when it was vetoed.”

How she has gets results: Perhaps surprisingly for a former prosecutor, Gov. Chris Christie has been receptive to several of the Drug Policy Alliance’s agenda items, including a measure that expanded access to clean needles by allowing pharmacies to sell syringes over the counter.

Scotti said that a key part of the Drug Policy Alliance’s approach has been to have people with first-hand experience coping with drug addiction or who have had family members die from overdoses lobby legislators.

“We spent a lot of time teaching them about how the system works,” Scotti said of parents like Patty DiRenzo, whose personal appeal to Christie was cited by the governor when he signed the “Good Samaritan” bill.

Statistics and research are important, Scotti said, but they’re “not what move people . . . Hearing from someone who contracted HIV from a dirty needle, that’s what makes it real.”

What motivates her: “You can make a difference for people who the rest of society pretty much shuns and marginalizes.”

Political winds shift: Scotti has detected a change in the national conversation about drug policy over the past year, from President Barack Obama saying that smoking marijuana is less dangerous than drinking alcohol to Christie saying in his recent inaugural address that the war on drugs has been a failure, a declaration that Scotti said she thought was “great.”

“We would like to see the governor expand his thinking a little on just what it means” to say the war on drugs is a failure, Scotti said. More pointedly, she would like to see Christie soften his opposition to decriminalizing marijuana. She noted that a marijuana conviction could be a lifelong impediment to finding employment or housing.

What’s next: Scotti is plans to focus on reforming the state’s bail laws, so that whether a person is released on bail is no longer determined by his or her ability to post bond. She noted that people can spend 10 months in jail because they can’t come up with $2,000 — and then be found not guilty.

She’d like a system similar to federal guidelines, including detaining those who’ve been arrested based on a risk assessment. She said the lower cost of out-of-jail supervision compared with the cost of jailing prisoners is a powerful argument for the bill, A-1910 and S-946.

As part of pretrial preparation, she’d like to see the state help eligible residents enroll in Medicaid and get access to drug treatment. “It’s a fiscal issue, but it’s also a public health issue.”

In addition, she plans to campaign in support of Sen. Nicholas Scutari’s proposal to legalize marijuana.