Despite a variety of backgrounds -- from attorneys to outreach workers to recovering drug users -- most of those gathered yesterday at Seattle City Hall to discuss the war on drugs agreed that, as waged today, it is at best ineffective and at worst expensive and unfair.
"We really must stop these wasteful practices," said Roger Goodman, an attorney with the King County Bar Association.
Goodman was one of eight people who met with a group of City Council members for a brown-bag discussion about the war on drugs.
Councilman Nick Licata, who heads the city's committee on issues dealing with law enforcement, convened the meeting, but said it really was done at the urging of groups advocating for reforms in how drug laws are enforced.
The goal, he said, is for the city to begin working on drug treatment as a way of reducing street-level drug dealing, rather than relying on law enforcement to arrest street dealers.
"I want the council to send a strong message to the mayor and the Seattle Police Department," he said.
Licata said he plans to hold two public-safety forums this spring and may survey those attending about their attitudes toward drug use and enforcement.
Those gathered included Katherine Beckett, a professor at the University of Washington whose study on the racial makeup of those arrested in Seattle for drug offenses found that blacks make up a disproportionate number of the arrests.
Though they account for less 9 percent of the city's population, Beckett said yesterday, blacks make up 64 percent of those police arrest for dealing drugs. At the same time, her study found that the vast majority of drug users and dealers are white, not black.
D'Adre Cunningham, a public defender representing a group of six accused street dealers, was also at yesterday's discussion.
Of greatest concern, she said, were the racial disparities that studies like Beckett's have shown.
"We believe that it is bad public policy to, once these issues have been brought to light, continue to enforce in a racially disparate way," Cunningham said yesterday.
Beckett's work is part of the defense for the six men Cunningham is representing. The men are defending themselves by arguing that the way Seattle police enforce drug laws is biased because of the heavy focus on street dealing.
Last month, the group won a legal victory that allows it to proceed with its defense and question several top-level police officials about drug-enforcement policies.
There have been other calls for change recently.
Last week, the King County Bar Association released a report arguing that drug abuse should be dealt with as a medical problem, not a crime. The state should regulate the manufacture and distribution of now-illegal drugs and that, the association contends, would reduce drug-related crime, gang violence and drug use among children. (Find the full report here.)
Former Seattle police Chief Norm Stamper has also weighed in on the debate. In his book, "Breaking Rank," scheduled to be published by Avalon this June, Stamper argues for decriminalizing drugs. The current laws, he writes, waste taxpayer money, unfairly target minorities and have resulted in police across the country making more arrests for drug offenses than they do for murder, manslaughter, rape and aggravated assaults combined.
Yesterday, one of those attending was City Attorney Tom Carr, who defended officers going after street dealers, but also supported more efforts toward drug treatment.
"It should be the right of a citizen to get whatever treatment they need," he said.
But in the end, Carr said, the discussion on drug laws needs to take place at the state and federal level.
"The city of Seattle has no authority to decriminalize anything," he said.
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