Like the rest of inner city America, Bridgeport, Connecticut's 130th District has for decades been ground zero in the war on drugs. Mostly black and Latino, like other majority minority neighborhoods across the land, it has suffered the twin ravages of drug abuse and drug prohibition. Now, a former drug-fighting Navy officer turned drug reformer is seeking to change all that with a bold vision and an upstart bid for the state House of Representatives.
Sylvester Salcedo (2nd from right)
In late May, Bridgeport attorney Sylvester Salcedo
announced he was seeking the Democratic Party nomination for November's House race in the 130th. Salcedo is best known in drug reform circles for being the first and only former military officer to protest the drug war by sending back his Navy and Marine Corps Achievement medal to then President Bill Clinton.
"Narcotics use and abuse is our problem here at home," he wrote at the time in a letter sent to Clinton. "The solutions should be applied here and not in Colombia or elsewhere. To spend this additional amount of money overseas is wasteful and counterproductive."
Fast forward eight years and little has changed. The war on drugs continues apace, drug arrests and drug war prisoners reach new highs every year. The violence associated with drug prohibition continues to plague cities like Bridgeport. And Salcedo has had enough.
"The war on drugs is one of our nation's longest wars, at home and abroad," he said as he announced his candidacy May 29. "It is senseless, wasteful and counterproductive. It is highly discriminatory on a racial and economic basis. I said so on the steps of the US Congress in Washington, DC flanked and supported by Minnesota Republican Congressman Jim Ramstad and California Republican Congressman Tom Campbell in the summer of 2000," he said.
"Eight years later, the conditions are the same, if not worse, especially for the isolated and abandoned residents of ethnic minority enclaves and neighborhoods like the 130th District," Salcedo continued. "I want to win this State Representative seat to be a leader of change. I want to lead the way to peace, understanding and cooperation, not through the politics of fear, and racial and ethnic discord and conflict. This senseless war on the poor and the voiceless must end."
Salcedo is not one for half-measures. He is proposing turning the 130th District into a sort of mini-Amsterdam, a zone of drug tolerance replete with safe injection sites, opiate maintenance facilities, and taxed and regulated marijuana sales. "I'm floating around this idea of the Covenant of the 130th District, which is to declare the district as a zone of tolerance," he said.
"I want to borrow from models like Amsterdam or Frankfort," he elaborated. "I'm not pushing legalization legislation, but acknowledging the fact that the 130th is a high drug trafficking and consumption area, from marijuana to heroin to cocaine. I want to try those approaches here. If you live in the district and are a heroin addict, we would work with you, whether it's a treatment and rehabilitation regime or a maintenance regime. If you select maintenance, you get the level of pharmaceutical grade heroin you need. In either case, you get medical, psychological, and social services, an intake exam, a social worker and a drug counselor to work with you. But this won't be a coercive or punitive program; instead it will be designed to develop the relationship with the addict."
Citing Bridgeport's chronically under-funded schools, libraries, and other services, Salcedo also called for regulated marijuana sales as a revenue raiser. "I want to open up a number of marijuana coffee shops in this district," he said. "They could be city sponsored, or they could be a joint private-public project. If people want to come here and imbibe, we will welcome them, let them pay the market price, and tax their purchases. The profits can go to the city general fund, or, if it's a joint venture, a share to the entrepreneurs," he said. "We will follow the experience of Amsterdam, with the police working collaboratively, so they're not arresting people coming from the coffee shops."
Salcedo's will undoubtedly be an uphill battle against the entrenched Bridgeport Democratic Party political establishment and to convince skeptical voters that more of the drug war same old same old is not the solution. But he has already passed the first hurdle by getting 290 district residents to sign his nominating petitions. Now he has to raise $5,000 by August to show he is a viable candidate and qualify for another $20,000 in primary funding from the state of Connecticut. At least 150 Bridgeport residents must donate to his campaign for him to qualify. (That doesn't mean people from outside Bridgeport or Connecticut cannot donate -- they can.)
He can do it, Salcedo said. "The primaries are eight weeks away, and nobody expected me to even get the required signatures, but I did. And I met every person who signed my nomination papers. I think I can meet this challenge, too."
He's going to need some help, from the drug reform community at large and from Connecticut activists in particular if he is to have a chance. One prominent Connecticut drug reformer, Efficacy founder and 2006 Green Party gubernatorial candidate Cliff Thornton is among the first to step up.
"I'll definitely be going down there and doing a few things for Sylvester," said Thornton. "I have to help the reformer."
One thing he will advise Salcedo to do is put his drug reform message in the background. "We'll try to sharpen his message," Thornton said. "He doesn't have to lead with drug policy. He's already known as the drug reformer, and he won't have to talk about it because people are going to ask him about it.
Another thing Salcedo can do is try to tie drug reform into other issues facing the community, Thornton said. "We're spending somewhere between $600 million and $800 million on prisons in Connecticut every year," he said. "If we took that and put it toward health care, we could take care of everyone in the state. That's the kind of connection we need to be drawing."
It would be a good thing if national drug reform organizations provided more than token support, Thornton said, looking back at his 2006 campaign. "When it came to actually supporting that run, everybody disappeared," he said. "The flagship organizations sent a few bucks here and there, but not enough to make a difference. And that's a shame. We are starting to elect good drug reform politicians, like Roger Goodman in Washington state and Chris Murphy here in Connecticut. Their opponents attack them as soft on drug policy, and they go up in the polls. We can elect people, if we support them," Thornton said.
Salcedo could use the help, he said. "Right now this is basically a one-man campaign, and I have a full-time job."
Still, he said, he may be able to pull off a surprise victory. "This is going to be a low turnout election, no other issues on the ballot here, and the only reason people are likely to go to the ballot box is to vote for me for change or because they're tied to one of the establishment candidates," he said. "In this district in this election, maybe 200 or 300 votes can win it. I'll be beating the bushes and talking face to face with people. I'll do everything I can, and then it's up to the voters.
(This blog post was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)