The Drug War's Daily Grind: One Month in One Police District in Washington, DC 8/8/03

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Washington, DC's 4th Police District lies in the shadows of federal Washington, beginning about one mile north of the White House on the edge of downtown and cutting a four-mile long swath through northwest Washington between Rock Creek Park on the west and North Capitol Street on the east. Home to more than 100,000 of the District's residents, the 4th Police District encompasses block after endless block of tightly packed row houses and a pair of commercial corridors -- 14th Street NW and Georgia Avenue NW -- that are only now beginning to rise up from the ravages of the urban riots that swept the area in 1968. One of the more racially integrated sections of the city, the 4th Police District is home to an ever-increasing Hispanic population, as well as a black working class majority, a significant Vietnamese-American population, and a number of mostly young whites adventurous enough to live on the "wrong side" of 16th Street NW, the city's de facto dividing line between Upper Caucasia and Calcutta on the Potomac.

It is also a favorite police stomping ground in the war on drugs. Along with sections of predominantly black southeast and northeast Washington, the 14th St. corridor has for the past thirty years been the scene of endless street arrests, special police operations, and drives against open air drug markets. While crime in the 4th district and the city as a whole dropped from abysmal levels through most of the 1990s, it is on the increase again. But a sort of inertia seems to have set in with police and prosecutors. Day after day, month after month, year after year, the police respond with a steady drumbeat of drug arrests and prosecutors run them through the system as if on auto-pilot.

The month between June 15 and July 15 this year was nothing special, and that is what makes arrest and prosecution figures for the 4th District that month interesting. The "United States Attorney's Office Papered Community Prosecution" report is a snapshot of police and prosecution practices in a major US city in the midst of the never-ending war on drugs. (In Washington, DC, all prosecutions are handled through the US Attorney's office, which decides if cases will be charged under city law or under federal law.)

Prosecutors in the 4th police district filed 196 criminal charges between June 15 and July 15, 40 for crimes of violence and 32 for property crimes. The majority of the violent crimes were simple assault (23), followed by assault with a deadly weapon (9), and threatening bodily harm (4). Prosecutors also charged two persons with armed robbery, one with carjacking while armed, and one with felony murder. Leading property crimes were unlawful entry (14), destruction of property (7), and burglary (2), along with a smattering of fraud, forgery, and arson charges. Other offenses charged during the period included prostitution (14), weapons offenses (9), and drunk driving (9).

But a full 36% of all charges filed -- 72, equal to the number of violent and property crimes combined -- were for drug law violations. Leading the way was cocaine possession (20 charges), followed by marijuana possession (15), heroin possession (9), possession of drug paraphernalia (8), drug distribution (7), violation of a drug free zone (4), PCP possession (2), and marijuana distribution (2). By themselves, marijuana prosecutions constituted 9% of all prosecutions that month in a police district that averages a rape every two weeks, a murder every two weeks, two burglaries a day and two assaults a day, and a hundred stolen cars each month, according to Metropolitan Police records.

"It's nothing unusual, is it?" said Keith Stroup, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws ( "You can take a snapshot at any time in any state and you'll see we're wasting an enormous amount of resources and ruining a large number of lives, and almost all of these people are nonviolent offenders," he told DRCNet. "It seems that the public debate on marijuana has advanced far enough to acknowledge the downside of enforcement, but no one has the courage to do anything about it."

Fourth Police District resident and journalist-photographer Jeremy Bigwood, who has worked for years on drug reform issues in Latin America, was more blunt. "This sucks," he told DRCNet. "It's a waste of my money, it's a waste of police time, it's a complete waste when we have serious issues to deal with in this city. Marijuana smokers should not be getting arrested. Maybe if someone is smoking in the street, you should give them a citation, but not an arrest. That's just silly."

But it's business as usual in the retail drug war in the nation's capital, or more precisely, it's business as usual in the war on drug users. Only seven arrests out of 72 were for distribution of hard drugs.

-- END --
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Issue #299, 8/8/03 Note to Readers: Issue #300 and Name Change Coming Up, New Format | Bolivia's Morales Seeks Honest Enforcement Against Traffickers, Not Repression | Marinol Death Sentence: Oregon Man Denied Liver Transplant Because of Prescription -- He's Not the Only One | The Drug War's Daily Grind: One Month in One Police District in Washington, DC | August is Drug Reform Lobbying Month at Home! | Perry Fund Accepting Applications for 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 School Years, Providing Scholarships for Students Losing Aid Because of Drug Convictions | Newsbrief: Justice Department Orders Government Lawyers to Appeal "Soft" Sentences, Report on Judges Who Issue Them | Newsbrief: Tulia Pardon Decision in Governor's Hands | Newsbrief: COMBAT Anti-Drug Tax Passes in Kansas City | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | Newsbrief: Tampa Police Enjoying Seized Cars | Newsbrief: Doctrinaire Drug Warrior Confirmed as DEA Head | Newsbrief: Kentucky Teacher Fired for Promoting Hemp Wins Settlement | Newsbrief: Argentina Leads Latin America in Jailed Drug Offenders | Newsbrief: Marijuana Reform Stalled in New Zealand | The Reformer's Calendar

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