In Farewell Report, Syracuse Auditor Examines Drug War, Finds It Wanting 1/2/04

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In a report issued Monday, outgoing Syracuse, New York, City Auditor Minch Lewis (http://www.minchlewis.com) detailed the fiscal impact of drug prohibition on city finances and concluded that strict enforcement of the drug laws was an ineffective and even counterproductive use of city funds. In what is the first such report on the impact of prohibition by a local elected official, Auditor Lewis called for the exploration of alternatives to the drug war status quo, including decriminalization, harm reduction programs, and effective prevention programs.

"It's just not working," said Lewis, referring to business as usual in the city's drug war. According to Lewis's report, nearly one-quarter of all arrests in the city are for drug offenses. "The police could arrest twice that many and it wouldn't solve the city's drug problem," he told DRCNet.

"Public safety is a big issue," he said, "and that's why we were looking at the police department. I was the city's auditor, so this started with the budget process," said Lewis, who retired -- forced out by term limits -- effective Thursday. "We were looking at the amount of money we were spending for police, which at about $34 million a year was second only to schools. So we asked the police what they actually accomplished with that $34 million," he told DRCNet. "They supplied us with very solid statistics -- calls for requests for service, incidents, arrests -- and we found out they were arresting about 28,000 people a year, and about one-quarter of them were drug-related. We had to ask if we arrest 7,000 people a year for drugs and nothing ever changes, is this policy working? The answer is no."

The report had not started out as an indictment of the drug war, said Lewis. But as the numbers came in, they showed twice as many arrests for drug crimes as for any other offense -- nearly one-third of them on marijuana charges. "We started looking at statistics for the Police Department because public safety is so important," Lewis said. "But we were surprised to learn that twice as many people are arrested for drug-related incidents than for any other violation, and the violence in our neighborhoods is worse every year."

The report did not just rely on statistics, Lewis said. "I went to many neighborhood meetings and I listened to people and talked to people," Lewis said, "and they universally said they weren't that concerned about others using drugs at home. It was the violence associated with drug sales on street corners that concerned them. If we made those drugs available in some other fashion, well, I don't think we'd be spending $34 million a year to prevent people from smoking pot in their living rooms. Our policy today may be contributing to the violence, just as prohibition did for the last generation," Lewis said.

"The police are a little concerned, but this is not an attack on the police," Lewis clarified. "This is a question of public policy, and somebody has to ask the fundamental question: Why are these drugs illegal? When we talk about how we deal with this illegal drug or that one, we are dancing around the real question. We need to decriminalize drugs, and by that I don't mean legalizing them but dealing with them from the medical approach, not the criminal justice approach. We need to be talking about treatment on demand, and maybe making some drugs available through harm reduction programs. We need a different approach than locking people up."

"This is an important step," said Nicholas Eyle, cofounder and executive director of the upstate New York-based drug reform group ReconsiDer (http://www.reconsider.org). "This is the first time a city had done a report like this itself. There have been a handful of other reports on the impact of prohibition, such as the one Jeffrey Miron did on marijuana in Massachusetts, but they've all been done by some professor somewhere -- not by an elected official," he told DRCNet.

And ReconsiDer deserves some credit for the report. "It was my idea," said Eyle, "we've been working on this for months. Minch is on the ReconsiDer advisory board; he started silently showing up at meetings and I guess he liked what he heard. We've spoken many times. As an elected official, he hadn't done much on the issue, but now that his term is ending, he decided he had to do something."

Both Lewis and Eyle are looking for the report to do more than just gather dust.

"The report recommends that the Common Council and the mayor look at alternatives to prohibition, including decriminalization, harm reduction programs, and prevention programs," Lewis said. "I hope the council will pick this up and hold hearings. I would also like to see a task force appointed -- the police department, county health officials, the housing authority, the board of education, and local nonprofits should all be involved," he said. "We need an alternative approach, something like the medical model," he added.

"Hearings are probably our next step," agreed Eyle. "If the mayor and the council decide to hold hearings, we will certainly testify. If they hesitate or balk, we will push them as best we can. Getting some press would help." Lewis held a Tuesday press conference announcing his report, but as of Thursday only the local Syracuse Post-Standard had run a story, under the headline "Auditor: Anti-Drug Tactics Flawed." "That's a start," said Eyle, "but this needs to be in the New York Times."

Whether the council will agree to hearings is an open question. "There is a brand new council now," said Lewis, "and this is an opportunity for them to address this issue. This and education are the two most critical issues facing the council, but at this point I don't have a commitment from any of the council members to move on this."

And even if the council did act, its powers are limited. But there is plenty the council could do, said Eyle. "This is a tremendous financial burden for the city, and the council could vote to make drug law enforcement the lowest priority just to keep the costs down," he said. "There is precedent for this in New York. During Alcohol Prohibition, the state legislature passed a bill that basically said it respected the right of the federal government to enforce the law, but New York didn't have the resources to deal with it. The city of Syracuse could do something similar," Eyle said.

Pressure is not coming only from outgoing Auditor Lewis and ReconsiDer. Black minister the Rev. Larry Ellis has formed a group called Families Against Injustice to protest the federal prosecution of young men from the city's heavily black south side who had already served time for the same crimes in the state system. In what is a rare step for a black religious leader, Ellis and the organization are calling for an end to drug prohibition. And they are bringing in nationally known figures, such as the Rev. Edwin Sanders, to spread the message to other local religious and community leaders.

For ReconsiDer's Eyle, the Lewis report is a vindication of the group's strategy of playing it straight. "We've always been very careful not to be labeled pro-drug," he explained. "As an organization, we do not say it's okay if your kids smoke dope -- no matter what we may feel privately. There are no pot leaves on our web site. We don't do rallies, we don't attract the stoners," he said.

"We have a conservative image, and that allows us to take very radical positions," Eyle continued. "As most drug reformers know, we're pretty comfortably in the drug legalization camp. We're clear about that. But we've been talking to people like the Rotary Clubs for years, and everyone in the movement said that was a waste of time. They were wrong. Hundreds of Rotarians are members of ReconsiDer, and so is Minch Lewis."

Visit http://www.reconsider.org to read the Syracuse City Auditor's "Report on Syracuse Police Activities for the Year Ended June 30, 2002" online. (Eyle promised Wednesday it will be up "very, very soon.")

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