In his eponymous autobiography, 20th Century Salvadoran trade unionist and revolutionary Miguel Marmol wrote of "trabajo de hormiga," or ant work, the tedious but essential process of slowly putting together the building blocks for a successful social movement. It is careful, patient work, not glamorous and perhaps not noticed -- at first. But if enough ants work long enough, suddenly, breakthroughs arrive as if out of nowhere.
The upstate New York city of Syracuse is no San Salvador and Nick Eyle is no Central American Communist, but Eyle and the organization he represents, ReconsiDer (http://www.reconsider.org), have been doing ant work on drug policy for years, and this year those efforts are beginning to pay off. In January, Drug War Chronicle detailed outgoing Syracuse city auditor Minch Lewis' groundbreaking report on the impact of the drug war on local police budgets, and his call for the city government to discuss alternatives to what he bluntly called a prohibitionist policy that is "not working" (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/318/syracuse.shtml).
Lewis came to his interest in transforming the city's approach to drug policy through discussions with Eyle, both men told DRCNet, and he sits on the group's board of advisors. "He came to a meeting and liked what he heard and decided to stick around," Eyle said. Lewis' January report was a result of the collaboration between the auditor and the drug reformers. And last month, ReconsiDer's ant work and the Lewis report's call for hearings on the issue bore fruit as the Syracuse Common Council brought in drug reform advocates from the US and Canada for two sets of hearings on the failures of prohibition and the prospects for implementing alternatives at the local level.
In the hearings on October 14 and 28, council members and interested citizens heard from a cavalcade of drug reformers. Appearing at the first session were Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (http://www.leap.cc) head Jack Cole, a former New Jersey narcotics officer, and Boston University economist Jeffrey Miron, author of a book on the costs of drug prohibition to state governments.
The economic logic of prohibition ensures that the drug war will fail, said Cole. "There is such an obscene profit motive that we believe an army of police officers will never arrest our way out of it. Every arrest is a job opening." But the economic benefits of prohibition are not limited to drug dealers, he added. Police, prosecutors, and prison guards, as well as the economic interests that benefit from prohibition, all have a vested interest in maintaining it, he said. "There's something in the war on drugs for everyone -- not just the dealer," Cole said.
Economist Miron told the forum that if Syracuse police treated marijuana like alcohol, the city could save $500,000 a year, while those savings would double if that policy were broadened to include all drugs. "The answer is to legalize it," Miron said. "Then you don't have to go to some dealer to buy it. You can buy it at the corner drug or hemp store."
Two weeks later, the council and interested citizens gathered again, this time to hear from Roger Goodman, director of the King County Bar Association Drug Policy Project (http://www.kcba.org/druglaw/) in Seattle, who has helped create and lead a coalition of Washington state professional and community organizations interested in reforming drug policy. Also on hand were Canadians Eugene Oscapella, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Foundation (http://www.cfdp.ca) and Sen. Pierre Claude Nolin, chair of the Canadian Senate's committee on illegal drugs, which in September 2002 issued a report calling for the legalization of marijuana.
"We need to control drugs, rather than control people," Goodman told a rapt audience. "This cries out for regulation." Goodman hammered on the theme heard two weeks earlier -- that prohibition is a damaging approach to dealing with drugs. Not only does prohibition create an overloaded criminal justice system, it diverts police from serious crimes. "Law enforcement isn't really focusing on rape, murder, or assaults -- they're spending all their time on drugs," Goodman said.
Sen. Nolin, a member of Canada's Conservative Party, said policymakers should concentrate on reducing the harms of drug abuse, not seek to eliminate drug use. "The real objective is not to limit or prohibit all use -- it's to limit harmful use," Nolin said. "When prohibition is the main driving tool of public policy, it never influences the rate of use." Nolin also stretched American brainpans by suggesting -- gasp -- that drug users should be included in setting drug policy. "You have to involve everybody -- the stakeholders need to be part of your strategy," Nolin said.
"Syracuse was very impressive," said the Canadian Drug Policy Foundation's Oscapella, who also addressed the forum. "There were several council members present, and they and they audience gave us a very respectful hearing," he told DRCNet. "They asked good questions. It is clear they are really searching for what can be done, not just some rhetoric to use, but what they can actually do to change things. We talked to them about some of their alternatives: shifting law enforcement priorities, sending nonbinding resolutions to the state and federal governments, as well as honest public education and addressing the citizens. That's where you make things happen," he said.
The King County Bar Association's Goodman was equally impressed, both with the sophistication of the Syracuse crowd and with the preparations made over the years by ReconsiDer. "Syracuse is not a liberal city like San Francisco or Seattle -- people there are sophisticated, but with a sort of salt of the earth quality -- but it benefits now from a public conversation about drug policy that has really matured, and that is thanks to the work of Nicky Eyle and the folks at ReconsiDer," said Goodman. "Their work has borne fruit. You can see the difference. I went to Rochester the next day, and the audience there was nowhere near as advanced, there wasn't nearly the comprehensive understanding of the issue."
Still, even Syracuse was a bit taken aback by some of the cutting-edge measures Goodman discussed. "When I started talking about safe consumption rooms and heroin maintenance, there was some jaw-dropping, but when I described all the benefits, the reduced crime and disease, the improved health and education, I could see they were beginning to think about it some more."
Despite all the positive energy in Syracuse, the city's options are limited. Drug prohibition is based on state and federal law, not municipal ordinance. Still, there are things that can be done at the local level. "There is this ongoing frustration about the limits of reform at the local level," said Goodman. "But there are things you can do. We made a lot of practical suggestions about making operational changes on the street like we did in Seattle, which has made a tangible difference there. There has got to be a better policy than one of automatic arrests. The other thing is to intervene when people are seriously involved in drugs on the street."
Syracuse is ready to try something new, said former auditor Lewis, who spent eight years talking to people in the community. "People in Syracuse are in general agreement that Plan A is a catastrophe, and they are looking for Plan B. The more we wage this war on drugs, the farther behind we get. Our neighborhoods are being destroyed, our families are broken," he said.
"I think these hearings were very important and effective in raising these sorts of basic questions about what the drug war is all about and what people really want. I applaud the Common Council and Finance Committee chair Stephanie Miner for recognizing the importance of this issue," Lewis added.
And he agreed with Goodman that the city could take some steps toward a better policy. "The panelists made suggestions about the way the drug laws are enforced. We have a lot of discretion in terms of enforcement, and the priorities we set determine where the police are going to focus their efforts. In the hearings I held in the community, what I found was that people were concerned not so much about drug use as street-level drug sales, the black market and the associated crime and violence, and the root cause of that is prohibition."
Now that the Common Council is paying attention, said Lewis, the next step is to translate that awareness into reshaped budget priorities. "They will review the budget at the beginning of the year and they will look at all the statistics that show exactly what the police force is focusing on," he said. "They will have the chance to change priorities so, for instance, instead of funding a major police department task force that spends all its time tracking down drug sales they could fund community policing."
While the drug experts have come and gone, Lewis and Eyle and ReconsiDer remain. And so does the work. "Now, we continue," said Eyle. "We'll work on making marijuana a lowest priority, we'll look at what else the city can do to reduce harm and save money. We are limited -- a city can't end prohibition -- but we all understand this is driven by prohibition. There is no denying that we are talking about legalizing drugs." ReconsiDer does not deny that it is an anti-prohibitionist group, and being up front about it does not appear to have damaged the group's efficacy. To the contrary, Eyle reported, "Our guests were amazed at the level of discussion and the ease with which legalization talk was received."
While many drug reformers shy from talking about ending prohibition, they are being too shy, Eyle argued. "We are not ashamed to say we believe legalization is the solution to all of these problems, and we've been at it for years, writing letters to the editor, publishing op-eds, talking to the Rotary Clubs," he said. "Those people who heard us at the Rotary remember, and they come back. The new auditor, the guy who replaced Minch Lewis is a subscriber to our newsletter. He heard us at the Rotary Club three years ago, and he agrees with us. This is the result of speaking the truth year after year. We're not trying to trick anybody. If anyone asks if we want to legalize drugs, we say yes, of course."
That straightforwardness pays off, said Eyle. "We're seen as honest, and that's a big plus. If the rest of the drug reform movement had been talking for the last ten or 15 years about ending prohibition instead of hiding behind issues like hemp and medical marijuana, we would be having politicians coming to us now for proposals on how to implement changes. They can be liberal, they can be conservative. We don't care. All you have to do is agree our drug policy sucks and needs to be reconsidered."
Some observers feel that ReconsiDer doesn't receive enough support from national drug reform circles. "People like Nick Eyle and ReconsiDer, as well as people like Cliff Thornton and his group Efficacy (http://www.efficacy-online.org), who are doing similar things, are doing some of the most important work in the drug reform movement," said Eric Sterling, head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation (http://www.cjpf.org), a Washington-based advocacy group. "And they're not getting much attention."