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October 28, 2004 - Real Change(WA)

A War With No Winners

Arresting Large Numbers Of The City's Most Vulnerable Residents Does Nothing To Address The Underlying Social Problems Of Drug Addiction, Poverty, And Despair

By D'Adre Cunningham, staff attorney of the Defender Association's Racial Disparity

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The City of Seattle's response to the problem of drugs is both unjust and unnecessarily costly. In particular, the city should de-prioritize the arrest of low-level, non-violent drug offenders and encourage the funding and development of more cost-effective methods of protecting public safety and reducing drug abuse.

The current approach to drug abuse emphasizes the arrest of many drug users for possession or "low-level" delivery. It is commonplace for drug users to deliver or facilitate delivery of small amounts of drugs and both are arrested on delivery charges. Either the buyer or the deliverer gives facilitators, who are often called "clucks" or "go-betweens," drugs or a small amount of cash for their assistance. These go-betweens and deliverers are overwhelmingly nonviolent, drug-addicted offenders.

At the same time, an estimated 130,000 persons in King County need, but cannot obtain, substance abuse treatment. The city neither currently provides nor proposes to provide treatment vouchers to people addicted to non-opiates. The emphasis solely on law enforcement does not reduce harms associated with illicit drug use and is extremely costly. While the city incurs the policing costs associated with this strategy( nearly $2.9 million next year, including personnel costs), county taxpayers pay to process, prosecute, defend, and jail those arrested. Unless the city's approach to drug abuse changes, King County's entire general fund will be spent on the criminal justice system by the year 2008.

The current response to drug abuse is not only ineffective and expensive, but disproportionately targets the most vulnerable: the poor, homeless, and drug-addicted. People of color within these categories are especially vulnerable to arrest under the city's current policies. Arresting large numbers of the city's most vulnerable residents does nothing to address the underlying social problems of drug addiction, poverty, and despair.

Four aspects of the city's approach to drug abuse must change in order to promote public safety and reduce drug abuse in the long term.

Stop routinely using patrol officers in undercover "buy-bust" operations aimed at low-level dealers Buy-bust operations( in which undercover officers solicit drugs from suspected dealers) in recent years consumed approximately 800 officer hours a month, even though on average a buy-bust yielded less than one gram -- equivalent to one packet of sweetener -- of narcotics.

Fund drug treatment and harm reduction programs Research consistently demonstrates treatment and prevention programs are a far more cost-effective means of dealing with drug abuse than the criminal justice system. A study found that drug treatment is seven times more cost-effective than drug law enforcement in reducing drug abuse, and that every dollar spent on treatment saves $7.48 on reduced crime and regained productivity.

Stop targeting vulnerable people arrest The current focus on low-level offenders disparately impacts the poor in general and poor addicts of color in particular. Under the most conservative estimate of available 2002 Seattle-King County public health data, less than 50 percent of Seattle's recent cocaine users were persons of color. Yet, approximately 97.1 percent of those convicted of dealing less than half of one gram of cocaine in 2002 were Black, Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander or Native American.

Make the prevention, detection, investigation, and arrest of violent and property crimes in Seattle the highest law enforcement priority Rapes, robberies, violent assaults, burglaries, and serious property crimes go unsolved in Seattle at a higher rate than the national average for cities of comparable size. Detection and investigation of violent and property crimes begins with prompt 911 responses and thorough police reports. These should be the department's top priority.

A coalition of racial and social justice organizations, representatives of communities of color, religious leaders, labor activists, public health and human services providers, academics, and other concerned citizens have developed the "Budget for Justice" campaign in order to transform the city's drug enforcement policies. The coalition is calling for the city to stop using police patrol resources to conduct undercover drug operations, re-focus those resources on the arrest and investigation of property and violent crimes, halt the use of arrest of "low-level" drug offenders as the city's primary tactic against drug abuse, and fund more effective responses to drug abuse in our community, such as drug treatment programs. Community members concerned about this issue should come to the Seattle City Council's last public hearing on this year's proposed budget, Thursday, November 4, and make their voices heard.

D'Adre Cunningham is staff attorney of the Defender Association's Racial Disparity Project. For more information about the Budget For Justice Coalition's campaign, call K.L. Shannon.

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