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Originally published Monday, January 3, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

Legalizing street drugs an experiment worth considering

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...

WASHINGTON — 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. ... Every arrest is a job opening."

Eyle, head of Syracuse-based ReconsiDer, is meeting again with the City Council to discuss such steps as a resolution asking the federal and state governments to change drug policies that are merely stimulating black-market activity, crime and violence. Instructions to divert Syracuse's police to more important tasks, perhaps lowering the priority of marijuana arrests in the city, will be considered.

"This is a unique opportunity to change the image of the city, from an undistinguished Rust Belt city to a progressive community actively working to improve itself," Eyle argues. But it's clear his long-term goal is much broader: lifting drug prohibition altogether.

What would that mean? Eyle suggests European-style "harm reduction," recognizing that a segment of the population will always use illegal drugs, so that government's role is to reduce the harm to the user and society. A possible approach: decriminalizing personal possession of drugs, leaving importation and manufacture and sale of significant amounts illegal. There also would be voluntary treatment programs for addicts.

What about total "legalization"? It's a good possibility, says Eyle, if we revise, hand-in-hand, appropriate regulations. The parallels in his argument are intriguing:

"We currently regulate alcohol to ensure its purity and to keep it out of the hands of children. We regulate its points of distribution and hours of sale. We tax it. Do we still have an alcohol problem? You bet. Can kids obtain alcohol? Absolutely."

But, Eyle asks, do we have "a large market in every community selling alcohol to minors? No. Are beer salesmen spraying bullets at each other to settle arguments over shelf space in the supermarket? No."

Legalization, by this reasoning, is OK, and good for us all, if it can successfully eliminate the gruesome waves of crime that surround today's illegal drug market. The "how" could be complex: Does government do the selling, or does the free market? Is advertising permitted? How do rules differ for marijuana, cocaine, heroin?

But just think what legalization could deliver: radically reduced incentive to crime, far safer streets and cities, fewer shattered families, less-crowded and costly prisons breeding new criminals, more racial equity. In a society that prizes freedom and innovation, I'd call this an experiment we owe ourselves.

Neal Peirce's e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com

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