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December 18, 2007 - The Guardian (UK)

Big Easy Offers Only Tough Choices For America's Drug War

By Ethan Brown

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

With unemployed middlemen and roaming dealers claiming new turf, New Orleans is a microcosm of the failed 'war on drugs', writes Ethan Brown

Drug policy chiefs have had few concrete successes in convincing the public or policymakers to retrench in the decades-long drug war. But when the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) held its international Drug Policy Reform conference in New Orleans recently there was the sense that its time -- and place -- were finally right.

Just a few days before the conference kicked off at the Astor Crowne Plaza in the French Quarter, the November 27 issue of Rolling Stone featured a sprawling, 15,000-word investigation by Ben Wallace-Wells into the US failed drug policy called How America Lost the War on Drugs.

Though anti-drug war broadsides are about as common in Rolling Stone as paeans to the late Hunter S Thompson, Wells' piece was unusually effective because it was not about the unappreciated pleasures of psychedelia but instead a methodical assessment of the high costs and low benefits of highly-punitive drug policies employed by the US.

Indeed, in praising the piece as the "smartest drug story of the year," Slate's Jack Shafer compared Wells to "an auditor called in to assess the wreck of a Fortune 500 company". And there could certainly be no more appropriate place for the Drug Policy Alliance to bring its anti-prohibitonist message than New Orleans-- Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the US, yet still has still has extraordinarily high levels of drug use, drug dealing and drug related homicide.

Unsurprisingly, it was a pair of panel discussions about the flourishing of the drug trade and collapse of the criminal justice system in New Orleans -- Drug cultures in post-Katrina New Orleans and Post-Katrina, can New Orleans afford to keep fighting the failed 'war on drugs?' -- that yielded the deepest and most unexpected insights.

A team of sociologists and criminologists with the National Development and Research Institutes (NDRI), a New York-based non-profit research and educational organisation which conducts studies in public health and criminal justice policy, provided near-novelistic accounts of the changes in the drug business in New Orleans since the storm.

Interviews with more than 100 drug dealers and users in New Orleans and Katrina turned up stories like: white crystal meth cookers instructing black crack dealers on how to cook up the drug on their kitchen stoves; an explosion in heroin use and availability that has resulted in the drug being consumed in all manner of strange and fascinating ways from heroin-laced gumbo sold for $10 a cup, to tightly-rolled marijuana blunts packed with the drug; dealers from storm-wracked neighborhoods moving into surrounding areas and clashing with established dealers (this may go far in explaining the current murder epidemic in New Orleans); and, perhaps most disturbingly, thousands of "emancipated youths" (teenagers returning to New Orleans to live on their own, with absolutely no parental supervision) entering into the drug game in order to support themselves financially.

The NDRI team also catalogued the criminal justice meltdown in New Orleans in devastating detail, from the immediate aftermath of the storm when few parts were up and running to today, when they are operating yet highly dysfunctional.

Soon after the storm receded, a makeshift court and jail was set up at the New Orleans Amtrak station, dubbed "Camp Amtrak" by local law enforcement officials. Working conditions at "Camp Amtrak" were so horrendous that the district attorney actually worked from the station's gift shop. Since then, the DA has worked in temporary quarters on Poydras Street in downtown New Orleans and has struggled to keep up with the surge in robbery, murder and drug cases.

In 2006, the city infamously released 3,000 suspects under Article 701 of the Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure, and this year has not been much better-- there were 580 so-called 701 releases in January alone. The sense among hustlers that there is a near-total lack of consequences for their actions has actually eliminated employment in at least one level of the drug business according to the DPRI sociologists and criminologists.

Before Katrina, drug dealers would use intermediaries to get product to customers who wouldn't enter certain neighborhoods (for example, the French Quarter visitor looking for cocaine who didn't want to venture into predominantly black neighborhoods like Treme or Mid-City was served by an intermediary).

Since the storm, dealers have grown so bold that they sell directly to just about anyone on the streets, a big break in tradition in the drug business -- particularly crack -- in which selling to unfamiliar customers is verboten as they often turn out to be informants or undercover cops. "The dealer does not think there is any likelihood of arrest or conviction," explained DPRI's Stanley Hoogerwerf, "so he has eliminated the intermediary, who is now added to the ranks of unemployed in New Orleans".

Interestingly, as described by the DPRI team, the plight of the post-Katrina street hustler -- stressed out by the loss of their place of residence and skyrocketing living expenses ranging from higher heating bills to rent -- is remarkably similar to the average overburdened New Orleanian. That strain, unsurprisingly, is soothed by a boom in demand for prescription pills like Xanax and Valium which are increasingly sold by New Orleans hustlers along with the stable of illicit substances like cocaine, meth and marijuana.

Indeed, New Orleans-based rapper Lil Wayne had a huge hit this year with his woozy ode to sedatives I Feel Like Dying. In the song, Wayne rhapsodises about being a prisoner behind "Xanax bars" (high dosage pills of Xanax are dubbed "bars" on the streets because they resemble miniature chocolate bars).

Given the widespread abuse of illegal substances (and the illegal use of legal substances) the options for in-patient rehab in New Orleans are surprisingly sparse. Else Pedersen-Wasson, executive director of substance abuse treatment centre Bridge House, explained on the separate discussion panel that the few in-patient rehab beds in the city are quickly filled when they (rarely) become available, indeed, by one estimate there are just 200 such beds in all of New Orleans.

It would be comforting to think that New Orleans is uniquely dysfunctional, unfortunately, however, the criminal neglect that characterises the state of the criminal justice system in New Orleans -- huge resources allocated toward arrest and incarceration while rehabilitation is left high and dry -- is mirrored across the country.

That's precisely what made the DPA's message of treating drugs as a public health rather than criminal justice issue so powerful, even though the conference itself could have used more purely analytical voices like LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), who offered stories at several panels about making waves of arrests and then realising that they'd made little or no dent in the drug trade.

Coincidentally, on the second day of the conference, the justice department released a report stating that there were approximately 2.38 million people incarcerated in state and federal facilities as of 2006. Of those incarcerated, 905,600 are African-American, an all-time high.

Yet, as the wave of arrests and incarceration crests, there are signs that the tide may be turning against US drug policy. Virginia Democratic Senator Jim Webb recently held hearings on mass incarceration in which he proclaimed that "with the world's largest prison population, our prisons test the limits of our democracy and push the boundaries of our moral identity".

At a DPA conference panel called Black America: The Debate Within, Brown University economics professor Glenn Loury enthusiastically praised Webb's fearlessness on such a politically unappealing issue to rapturous applause from the packed ballroom.

Few politicians, Loury said wryly, are "in a rush to declare the drug war a failure". Perhaps the increasingly glaring policy failures of the drug war in New Orleans and in the rest of the country will cause other lawmakers to follow Webb's brave lead.

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