Can One City Impact America's Drug Laws?

By Peirce, Neal | Nation's Cities Weekly, January 24, 2005 | Go to article overview

Can One City Impact America's Drug Laws?


Peirce, Neal, Nation's Cities Weekly


Can a single city do anything to change drug policies that are delivering terror to our inner city streets, diverting police, clogging our courts, breaking up families, and making a once-proud America quite literally the incarceration capital of the world?

It's tough because federal and state drug laws, passed by tragically misguided "law-and-order" politicians, are highly intrusive. But Syracuse, N.Y., with a detailed analysis of drug law impact by outgoing City Auditor Minchin Lewis, followed up by recent city council hearings, is courageously asking tough questions and searching for alternatives.

Lewis' audit, inspired by Syracuse drug reformer Nicolas Eyle, focused on the Syracuse police department. It discovered that 22 percent of the department's 28,800 arrests in a single year were for drug-related incidents, more than arrests for assaults, disturbances and larcenies combined. Close to 2,000 persons were charged with possession or sale of marijuana, a substance many claim is no more if not less dangerous than alcohol.

Lewis found that drug arrests were focused in six poor, heavily black inner-city neighborhoods Police raids in search of evidence were rendering housing units, many government-owned, uninhabitable, and forcing many families to split up because of government rules evicting drug users from public housing.

If Syracuse's drug raid and arrest policy is intended to reduce drug use, the Lewis audit concluded, "it is not achieving its goal. The drug activity is continuing with an ever-increasing spiral of violence."

It's true, Lewis concluded, that the city can't change federal or state drug laws. But it can use its authority over police to reduce the emphasis on drug-related arrests and focus on "harm reduction and prevention efforts rather than absolute prohibition."

City council member Stephanie Miner said she found citizens typically unconcerned about people using drugs in the confines of their homes, but deeply alarmed by the violence visited on their neighborhoods by drug dealing on the street.

"The main effect of prohibition is to drive the market underground," Jeffrey Miron, a Boston University economist and drug trade expert, told the Syracuse council hearing in October. Like the alcohol trade in the Roaring Twenties, he said, narcotics rendered illegal by federal decree soar in price and have created an opportunity for traffickers and dealers interested in getting a share of the $65-billion-a-year nationwide market.

Jack Cole, the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition who served 12 years as an undercover agent for the New Jersey State Police, told the hearing: "There is such an obscene profit motive that an army of police officers will never arrest our way out of it.

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