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News :: Human Rights : Politics : Social Welfare
A Failed Policy? Boston Debates the War on Drugs
19 Nov 2004
Boston, Massachusetts, USA - "We have a public policy crisis: we are spending billions of dollars to fight a war on drugs and we don't seem to be able to stop the flow of drugs into this country. We are spending more and more public dollars on housing men and women who are involved with the drug trade, drug addiction seems to be increasing, and yet we don't seem to have the money to help those who want to turn their lives around and recover from addiction." With these words, Boston City Councillor Chuck Turner started the public hearing to investigate the war on drugs. He called the hearing "just the beginning of a long dialogue in Boston to see how we can move forward".
Officials from the Boston Police Department, the Boston Public Health Commission participated in the hearing, as well as concerned citizens from groups such as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the Cannabis Reform Coalition, and Consent of the Governed. Others spoke about their experiences with racial discrimination and drug issues, concerns about the militarization of the police through the drug war, gang presence in neighborhoods, and citizen access to and control over federal policy.

The overall tone of the public hearing was one of thorough disenchantment with the current drug war policies. However, towards the end of the hearing, the chair, Councillor Rob Consalvo, and Councillor Chuck Turner debated each other and the participants on the effectiveness of policing versus legalization in getting drugs and gangs out of Boston neighborhoods.

The first official questioned at the hearing was Lieutenant Stephen Mead, commander of the Boston Police Department's Drug Control Unit. He admitted that although he has 85 full-time officers dedicated to drug issues who arrest many drug dealers every year, and despite follow-up work in the neighborhoods, the drug trade continues: those arrested are replaced by others. Councillor Turner asked Lieutenant Mead about the rank of those targeted by arrests: are they the larger national and international drug dealers, and the banks assisting them in laundering the drug money, or merely street-level dealers? Lieutenant Mead answered that the higher level investigations are done by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.

The issue of investigating the banks involved in drug money laundering, and possibly seizing the accounts used to launder drug money, came up several times during the hearing. Art Nicoletti, founder of the group Consent of the Governed, asserted that federal financial and investigative branches are unwilling to prosecute banks and seize drug money accounts, even though they know which banks and accounts are involved in laundering, and are allowed by law to seize such accounts.

The director of the Boston Public Health Commission's substance abuse services testified that addiction rates of certain drugs, especially heroin, are increasing, with a large fraction of the abusers being young people under 25 years old. Although Boston has been able to reduce violent drug-related deaths, the number of deaths due to drug overdose has increased steadily from roughly 200 in 2000 to close to 400 last year.

Due to recent budget cuts, the number of spots available in drug recovery programs has gone from almost 1000 in 2001 to closer to 400 beds today, said the director of the substance abuse services: "Now, if someone who comes in to our offices wanting to deal with their addiction, but doesn't have health insurance, they are not guaranteed a bed in a recovery center. They are put on a waiting list. But they might not come back when the bed is ready for them ..." She mentioned the frustration of treatment providers, when drug abusers come in for treatment, which cannot be provided due to lack of resources. She also explained that the budget cuts were harmful in the long term to the city and state's health infrastructure: "we hope additional funding will restore some recovery beds, but many providers of recovery services have simply closed down due to the budget cuts, and will not reopen."

Councillor Turner summarized the formal part of the hearing by stating that "the war on drugs has failed to limit drug use here in Boston, and we have to face that." Citing the increased overdose deaths, he said that in his personal opinion, "it's hard for me to imagine that the situation could be worse if drugs were legalized."

Although most of the speakers in the open testimony part of the hearing agreed that the war on drugs must be stopped, and alternatives such as legalization, medical treatment of addicted persons, and seizure of drug money assets should be pursued, a heated debate started when the topic of demilitarization of the police arose.

A graduate student of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying issues of police relations with the military, Gan Golan, discussed the problems ensuing from militarizing the police through the war on drugs. He mentioned the erosion of the traditional (and constitutionally-mandated) separation between the police and the military, through training programs and weaponry. According to Gan Golan, the framework of the war on drugs leads to a military response, rather than a medical and economic one which would be more effective. The militarized elements of the police force, originally deployed for the war on drugs or against protestors, spread to everyday police use. They result in events like the death of Emerson College student Victoria Snelgrove a few weeks ago in Boston due to shooting of a "non-lethal" weapon during a victory celebration for the Red Sox baseball team.

The chair of the meeting, Councillor Consalvo, objected to Gan Golan's statements: "When I go into neighborhoods, all I hear my constituents say is add more police force, that they want more police walking the beat to deal with the drug problem." Gan Golan responded that a militarized police was far from an ideal community police program. The debate over neighborhood requests for police presence versus an approach favoring economic and medical relief continued throughout the rest of the hearing.

Executive director of the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition group, Jack Cole, spoke about the parallels between alcohol prohibition in the 1920's and the drug prohibition today, saying that an effective drug policy would reduce death, disease, crime, and addiction, which the drug prohibition has failed to do. He highlighted high monetary and human cost of arresting and jailing millions for non-violent drug offenses. "You can get over an addiction, but you can never get over a conviction. If you're convicted for drug crimes, you become ineligible for college loans, so you can't go to school," he said, implying that the punitive impact of the war on drugs is sometimes worse than the impact of drug use itself. Although it was only formed in 2002, LEAP currently boasts over 2000 members from the law enforcement and judicial community, demonstrating that many professionals are motivated to further alternative drug policies.

Although both the proponents of a continued policing emphasis and the advocates for legalization and medical focus agreed on the primary goals of reducing drug deaths and violence, they were not able to find common ground during the hearing. Perhaps the continued dialogue promised by Councillor Turner at the beginning of the hearing will allow a consensus approach to be realized.

The personal opinion of the author is that a good community policing program is less costly and more effective than the high equipment and high cost militarization-criminalization programs, and most often at odds with them. Community policing should happen in coordination with a medical and economic relief approach, not counter to it. As some of the most experienced "drug warriors" (members of LEAP and other organizations) can attest, the police themselves would often welcome the change. Arresting generation after generation of street-level drug dealers and gang members, easily recruited and replaced by the inflated price of illegal drugs, is not a task that any police force can be proud of. A compromise solution, respectful of the needs of the neighborhoods, and effective in addressing the problems of drug use, should eventually be possible in Boston, and hopefully throughout the United States. An idea whose time cannot come too soon for the all the national and international victims of the drug war ...
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Re: A Failed Policy? Boston Debates the War on Drugs
19 Nov 2004
great article!
Re: A Failed Policy? Boston Debates the War on Drugs
19 Nov 2004
i'll be curious to know if this group is able to come to soem more common ground, and how soon and hwo often future disscussions will take place-- its a good first step, i hope they continue it.
Re: A Failed Policy? Boston Debates the War on Drugs
23 Nov 2004
First off, great article.

Secondly, I totally agree that the police need to be demilitarized. The people of the neighborhoods ask for more police protection, but that doesn't mean a guy in body armor with an AK on every corner. It means making the police presence more effective (ie. don't have two or three police use up the payroll budget by standing around watching a phone company put new lines in). If there was less money spent on high-price, ineffective equipment like those pepperball guns, there would be more money for payroll.

Finally, if people were not so focused on the 'more police, more prisons, longer jail terms' approach to drugs, we would have a much better drug policy. If someone is an alchoholic, they should go to AA, not jail. The same standard should be held to all those addicted. Also, manditory re-hab should not be imposed on people since it is counter productive to the system. If someone does not want to be helped, they can not be forced and for everyone who does not want to be there but is forced to be, there is one less space for someone who is actually seeking help.
Television...The DRUG Of Choice.
24 Nov 2004
War on drugs? What war? Demand will always prevail.
Television is the drug of choice. Idiots!
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