In the end, it wasn't drugs that appealed to Shambe Gaston, and he hated carrying a gun. But there was something else in the lifestyle that he found himself addicted to.
"I never wanted to be involved in drug violence, but when I had my car and my materialist thing going on, I had to play by the rules," Gaston said, calling the urge he feels to go back to a life on the streets a "disease."
"You've got to protect your territory, your manhood - I didn't understand that the wolves are out there," he said.
After a six-year prison sentence, the now 30-year-old man has enrolled at Onondaga Community College and found other things to fill his life. But the urge, he says, is still there.
"You've got a lot of people getting locked up, and it's a snowball effect," Gaston said. "I've got a felony; I can't get a good job."
After reviewing an internal study by the audit board, Syracuse officials are investigating new strategies in the war on drugs, including hearing expert testimony through a series of finance board hearings that concluded last night.
Stephanie Miner, one of the organizers of the hearings and a councilwoman, said the next step was for the Syracuse Common Council to review the testimony in depth, but encouraged public activism on the issue.
"This can be another step, or it can stop here, and it's within your decision as a group," Miner said to about 50 in the audience. "It is time to put political pressure on our leaders - nothing in this country happens without the political pressure and the will to do it."
Miner was confident that despite a number of difficulties in reviewing drug policy for reform, progress would be made.
"There was an appetite to have these kinds of hearings," she said. "The fact that the appetite exists means people realize we're not efficiently solving this problem."
Speaking at Thursday's meeting was Roger Goodman, director of the Drug Policy Project at the King County Bar Association in Seattle, Canadian Sen. Pierre Nolin, and Eugene Oscapella, director of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy.
"We need to control drugs, rather than control people," Goodman said, describing his experience dealing with Seattle's problems. "It cries out for regulation."
The three speakers argued repeatedly that prohibition is a damaging approach to dealing with drugs, saying that it pushes the market underground and out of the control of the government.
In addition, the burden of supporting a crowded legal system, prisons, police and other components of the current approach to drug policy saps valuable resources, they said.
"Law enforcement isn't really focusing on rape, murder, or assaults - they're spending all their time on drugs," Goodman said.
The collateral damage, too, often falls on members of racial minorities or the poor, they said, pointing out how national statistics routinely show a disproportionate number of blacks who go to jail on drug-related charges.
Miner said that Syracuse University students aren't exempt, either.
"The drug issue and the war on drugs affects us all, it clearly affects students too," Miner said. "They're not isolated students on a hill."
Miner pointed out that Simeon Popov, a music graduate student from Bulgaria, was murdered two years ago when he was delivering a bucket of chicken wings from Dorian's Gourmet Pizza and walked in on a drug-related robbery. Dominic "D-Murder" Dennard, Jr. shot Popov in the head before fleeing the house with $6,000 in cash intended for a drug deal.
"The problematic part of the black market for drugs in our city, from my viewpoint, is the violence that goes along with it," Miner said.
The panelists conceded that state and national law tie the city's hands for the most part, but said the first step was shifting money from law enforcement to health and prevention programs.
"We see that drug use is probably a symptom of something more fundamental," Goodman said. "All this money is being spent because we don't focus on drug treatment.
The system we have today necessitates people get arrested to get treatment."
Nolin and Goodman said the problems will improve if the police relax their focus on illegal drugs, only making arrests in serious cases.
"The real objective is not to limit or prohibit all use - it's to limit harmful use," Nolin said. "When prohibition is the main driving tool of public policy, it never influences the rate of use."
To further combat the drug problems, Nolin and Goodman advocated building up newer, more flexible institutions to focus on stemming addiction to drugs through social programs. Reviewing these programs and the changes constantly and critically, they said, was another key to success.
"You have to involve everybody - the stakeholders need to be part of your strategy," Nolin said.
In the future, they said government control and distribution of drugs would be the best policy.
Some community members, however, were skeptical.
"When I'm down in the trenches and I meet the grandmothers and the wives, I wonder how they would feel about the ethics of our government giving their grandson or husband drugs," said David Gibson, of Syracuse Community Healthcare.
Others were concerned about the absence of members of the Common Council.
"I feel it was disrespectful of them not to represent people of color here today," said Delores Dixie, of Family Against Injustice, of the minority members of the council. "We're trying to get as many minorities as possible involved in this fight."
Four members of the Common Council attended the first meeting, and three came to the second.
The panelists, however, praised the steps Syracuse has taken toward finding a solution.
"(Conversations on drug policy are often difficult), and that's why I'm so impressed with Syracuse," Goodman said. "You've gotten over the visceral reaction of running from talking critically about the drug problem."
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