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October 20, 2004 - The Daily Orange (NY Edu)

Losing Battle

City Officials Question Success Of Ongoing Battle With Drugs

By Terence Johnson

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

While Richard Nixon was a central figure to the Vietnam War - one of the most unpopular and divisive conflicts in the history of the United States - another battle he began rivals its reputation.

The war on drugs has been a continuous force in American politics and justice for the past 30 years, at a cost of over half a trillion dollars, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency. But as drug-related cases crowd jails around the country and a seemingly endless supply of illegal drugs and drug dealers rush to satisfy the black market, the fight is accumulating a long list of casualties and few victories.

Concerns peaked in Syracuse, however, after the Report on the Syracuse Police Department Activity for 2002 revealed that the drug war consumes a large portion of the department's resources.

"The catalyst was the budget hearings where the police, year after year, reported that they had 280,000 calls. That's sort of an unbelievable number," said Minchin Lewis, former city auditor. "I started with a simply inquiry: How many arrests are there, and is that number reliable?"

Despite a record number of arrests, the resulting report found that if the strategy were successful in ending the drug war, the police would already have run out of Syracuse citizens to arrest.

"Our city is a frontline victim in the war on drugs." - Minchin Lewis, former city auditor

For eight years, Lewis attended neighborhood meetings, speaking to city residents about their concerns.

During that time, Lewis said the universal concern was not the use of drugs, but the problems that accompany the drug trade and affect the rest of the community.

"People talk about the violence, the disruption of the neighborhood, the cars driving up and down the streets," Lewis said. "There's nothing scarier than having people outside your house at 3 o'clock in the morning, yelling and fighting."

The study, conducted by the Department of Audit, concluded that drug-related incidents result in the largest category of police arrests in Syracuse, numbering over 6,300 in 2002 and accounting for about 22 percent of the total, with 11 in the Syracuse University area bounded by Westcott Street, Comstock Avenue and East Genesee Street. The majority occurred in poor, mostly black areas of the city, where police anti-drug activity has focused.

The long-standing policy of the police has been to shut down "drug houses," either due to community complaints or an investigation. In doing so, however, the study found that another house would simply open up, putting police back at square one.

Even more tragic, Lewis said, a drug conviction removes eligibility for affordable housing, forcing many low-income families to split up or move to non-public housing.

"The policy has led to the breakdown of families that might otherwise make it," Lewis said.

In the process of raids, many of the houses were also simply made unusable, Lewis said. A police raid structurally damages the building, and those inside would flush drugs down the plumbing, ruining it, and leaving more government-owned vacant housing in low-income neighborhoods.

"They're doing an incredibly difficult job," Lewis said. "The problem is that the job we're asking them to do - which they're doing heroically - is the wrong job."

"The main effect of prohibition is to drive the market underground." - Jeffrey Miron, free market economist

Like the alcohol trade of the roaring '20s, an underground market for illegal drugs has developed that is lucrative and completely uncontrollable by the federal government, according to Miron, a Boston University professor, who has studied drug markets for the last 15 years.

The higher prices offered on drugs create not only a supply of readily available narcotics, but also a labor market for traffickers and dealers interested in getting a share of the $65-billion-a-year nationwide demand, Miron said. As this underground market develops, competition and the hope for profits drive down the cost of creating and distributing the drugs, while the purity and potency go up.

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, the estimated mark-up on drugs in underground markets approaches 1700 percent of what the cost would be if it were legal.

"There is such an obscene profit motive that we believe an army of police officers will never arrest our way out of it," said Jack Cole, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and a former undercover narcotics officer. "Every arrest is a job opening."

As competition intensifies among dealers, the effects are felt by the community: Crime increases, money is diverted from social spending to the war on drugs, civil liberties are reduced and society loses, Miron said.

"The answer is to legalize it," Miron said. "Then you don't have to go to some dealer to buy it. You can buy it at the corner drug or hemp store."

Miron estimated that if the Syracuse Police treated marijuana like alcohol - only issuing appearance tickets and fines for having or using the drug in public - it would save the city $500,000 a year. If the policy were broadened to include all drugs, it would approach $1 million.

Courses of action, however, are limited.

"The problem is that from a policing model, we enforce laws we're given," said Chief of Police Steven Thompson. "Until laws get changed, we have to continue to do what we do."

Even more challenging is the task of dismantling the drug war regime.

"There's something in the war on drugs for everyone - not just the dealer," Cole said.

An undercover narcotics officer for more than 20 years, Cole was among the first crop of officers hired after Nixon prioritized the war on drugs and provided funding for police departments across the country to strengthen anti-drug units.

As a result of funding, the size and aggressiveness of anti-narcotic units exploded, Cole said. To justify the spending, police began pursing strategies to boost arrest figures, including racial profiling and the infiltration of social circles.

While the strategies were effective in boosting arrests, Cole alleges that it did nothing more than create the drug problem that prevails today, and now that the "war" is entrenched in American life, removing it will be a battle of its own.

According to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United States spent $167 billion on policing, corrections and judicial and legal activities in 2001. In the 21 years between 1980 and 2001, spending on prisons rose from $541 million to almost $5.2 billion, which corresponds to an 850 percent increase in those serving prison terms on drug charges.

Federal drug offenders accounted for about 56 percent of the total federal prison population, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

But for many, the most disturbing aspect of the prison trends is that blacks account for 42 percent of those in prison on drug charges, according to the Federal Household Survey.

"The people that we're arresting don't seem to be from Manlius or Liverpool. There's a racial component, and we need to look at this." - Tim McCarthy, jail ministry

Lewis said exact statistics were not available to describe how race plays into the drug war in the city, but he said the majority of those arrested were black.

"There was a very strong correlation between areas that were low-income African-American populations and arrests," Lewis said. "Ninety percent of the people who use drugs are not from the inner city."

The audit showed that drug arrests occurred mostly in six neighborhoods: the South West side, Valley West, Central Business District South, South East Side, Near South West Side and Near West Side, which are located in the "urban core of the city" and composed primarily of minorities.

Mark David Blum, a local lawyer who graduated from Syracuse University's College of Law in 1991, has practiced in the city for almost 10 years, handling civil rights and drug-related cases.

For him, the drug war is an ongoing struggle to maintain the rights and liberties of those who live in the city.

"The reason that profiling is relevant is that you have to understand the environmental psychology of what's going on," Blum said. "When you live in the city - places like Kennedy Square, Cherry Hill - you have a lot of blocks stacked up on top of one another and nowhere to go."

Blum said that those arrested on drug charges are often groups of young blacks socializing in the only environment available. The police stop them for loitering or a similar charge, and upon searching them, it escalates into a drug misdemeanor or felony.

According to the audit, 595 arrests of this nature occurred in 2002. These cases were instead considered by police as "suspicious persons" incidents or a similar, non-drug-related category.

Even more telling of the widespread effect of the drug war on city residents is the fact that the majority of young men in the alternative education programs of the Syracuse City School District have fathers that are incarcerated, according to the audit.

"There is a pattern of drug-related crimes, violence, arrests, incarceration and life on the streets," according to the audit. "And then the cycle repeats itself in the next generation."

Life beyond incarceration can be just as bleak as a prison sentence, Blum said, pointing out that even after serving a sentence, many convicted on drug charges are denied or ineligible for public housing, student loans and other opportunities for assistance.

"People who did their time, paid their debt to society, are not criminals," Blum said. "But once they get that conviction, that's it, they're not going to get hired."

Still, Blum is optimistic that options are available. He urged the city to "opt out of the drug war" by decriminalizing drugs as much as possible by directing police to avoid any misdemeanor drug violations, which are legally left to the officer's discretion.

By condemning the drug war, just like it condemned the War in Iraq, the Common Council could take the initiative, he says, or even set an agenda for other cities to follow.

"It isn't a question of how you want to change the Rockefeller drug laws," Blum said, "but how you want to get rid of them."

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