CONNOLLY: Give trafficking the red light

Combatting open-air drug markets would improve America’s inner cities

Last week, I focused my attention on individual heroin use, and possible solutions for treating drug abuse and overdoses. But the heroin problem in America is not limited to drug abuse. Widespread drug trafficking leads to larger societal problems, including crime (especially violent crime), unemployment, poverty and a vicious cycle that often entrenches those who partake in the drug trade into a maze of crime and incarceration.

Drug distribution markets may function in two ways: via word of mouth and social networking — often the method of wealthier users — and via open-air drug markets, the lowest levels of drug distribution networks, which are geographically defined areas where buyers and sellers can deal with ease. While both markets constitute social problems, it is open-air drug markets that ravage American inner cities. Many residents of these areas, often in housing projects, are participants in the “drug game”, and many others implicitly condone the market’s existence as a method of making money, even if they do not directly participate. Still others are pushed out of these largely impoverished neighborhoods by endemic violence and crime that is often characteristic of these areas, leaving little behind but a further entrenched market.

The open-air drug market problem has been approached in various ways, and has often been treated by police as traditional crime. Under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, New York City “cracked down” on crime, simply by increasing the volume of police officers and arrests. New York’s crime rate dropped precipitously in the 1990s, and experts often cite Giuliani’s policing strategy as the most practical method of combatting crime. By increasing police coverage of the city, Giuliani made open-air drug markets impractical, even impossible. Though they still exist in New York, they do so in markedly lower numbers, and have a markedly lower impact on the city.

That is not to say that Giuliani’s strategy has been universally praised. Indeed, his strategy may have inadvertently caused drug dealers to shift their attention to nearby cities such as Camden, New Jersey. These cities saw their crime rates shoot up as New York’s declined. And while they have followed the Giuliani playbook in increasing police officers and arrests, they have not seen a corresponding decline in drug-related crime.

In last week’s article, I focused on the idea that treating drug use as a public health problem to be solved, rather than a crime problem, would benefit all involved parties. This week, I propose a similarly novel viewpoint with regards to open-air drug markets.

I have documented possible solutions more extensively in past articles for different publications, but I will now briefly outline the tenets of the High Point Strategy, a method of combatting open-air drug markets pioneered in High Point, North Carolina. Inspired by the writings of noted criminologist David Kennedy, High Point reduced its drug-related crime and all but eliminated its open-air drug markets in the early 2000s. Police conducted a sting operation after investigating drug markets for many weeks and jailed all violent dealers. They then sat the nonviolent offenders down with family members, community leaders and law enforcement, and stated that while their actions were not acceptable, charges would not be pressed if the offender ceases dealing in three days. Law enforcement also offered aid in job counseling and professional help.

The strategy has been hugely successful in High Point, North Carolina and Providence, Rhode Island, cities with formerly massive drug problems. It is time to try this strategy in cities across the country. Combatting open-air drug markets, an integral part of the heroin trade, would have huge positive impacts in American inner cities in terms of reducing drug-related crime and related social issues.

I should note that this strategy has often been derided as “hug-a-thug” for its emphasis on rehabilitation. One of its most prominent critics was Providence Police Lt. Dan Gannon. Gannon is now one of the strategy’s most prominent defenders, citing it as the prime reason Providence has recovered from its open-air drug markets.

Heroin poses massive problems for individual users. It also poses massive problems for the cities in which it is bought and sold. Combatting individual usage can save lives. Combatting open-air drug markets can save cities. Both are necessary; a multifaceted solution is required to solve this multifaceted drug problem.

John Connolly is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Thursdays.

Published February 20, 2014 in Opinion

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