Feature: DPA "City Strategy" Takes Aim at Drug War in the Nation's Capital 4/28/06

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The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) has been a presence for the last several years in local politics in the Washington, DC, area. For most of that time, the group has worked on advancing drug policy reform in Maryland, but now, as part of the group's nascent "city strategy," the DC local office will broaden its focus to the city of Washington and improving the nation's capital's drug policy reform profile. Two weeks ago, DPA's DC Metro Area (DCMA) office had its official opening, but the work is already underway.

DC is an apt target for a concentrated drug reform effort. With its open air drug markets and its prohibition-related "crack war" criminal violence that raged murderously through the 1980s and 1990s, with its high levels of heroin and crack use, with its large numbers of young black men behind bars on drug charges, the city and its residents have suffered terribly under current drug policies. And as the nation's capital, its national media presence acts as a megaphone for getting the word out to the rest of the country.

14th Street NW
"If you think about it, DC and San Francisco probably have the two most progressive electorates of any cities in America," said DPA executive director Ethan Nadelmann. "DC is majority African-American, and if you look at ballot initiatives, like the 1998 medical marijuana initiative or the Measure 62 treatment not jail initiative, both won there by bigger margins than anywhere else. In DC, the last time I looked, the percentage of people sent to prison for drug law violations is higher than any state in the country, and the role of drug enforcement in filling the prisons and jails is extraordinary. The city is also geographically compact, which makes grassroots organizing and activism more viable. DC has a major problem and a major opportunity to push the envelope with a populace already at the forefront of public opinion when it comes to drug policy reform."

For years, DPA has worked at the state and federal level to push the drug reform agenda, but now is the time to take it to the local level, thus the "city strategy," Nadelmann explained. "The drug laws are basically at the state and federal level, but most policy is done at the local level. If you want to push the envelope, if you want to do research trials with heroin maintenance or do harm reduction with police, many times you don't need to change state and federal law," he said.

DPA is now working at the municipal level in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, and trying to get something started in New York City, Nadelmann said. The group is also eyeing a possible fifth city.

"We want to focus on communities," said DCMA head Naomi Long, who brings with her previous drug reform experience in Alabama and Maryland, and whom Nadelmann calls "a rising star." "Much of our work here will be bringing people together and building coalitions," she told DRCNet. "We've already formed a coalition called Prevention Works Community Partners with two goals. The first is expanding treatment and getting more money and a better treatment delivery system. We have about 60,000 people in DC who need drug treatment, but only about 6,000 are getting it," she said.

"Our second goal is around harm reduction. There are no broad harm reduction projects in DC and not a lot of consistent education about what harm reduction is," said Long. "Some people think it's just needle exchanges, others think it's just methadone, and some just don't have a clue what it means. This is part of the reason we need a large component of community organizing here. We have not had a strong, strategic voice from the community asking that these issues be addressed, just small pockets of people who work on the issues or are service providers," she said.

"We are also working with the Robert Woods Johnson Institute to put together a group of people in recovery or who are recovered," said Long. "These people can talk about recovery and how treatment works and advocate for related issues, like insurance coverage for drug addiction and parity of coverage for substance abuse and mental health issues."

But for Long and DCMA, 2006 is a year of laying the groundwork. "At this point, we are talking about a 2007 Recovery Act, and we are in the process of putting that together. But we want a multifaceted, comprehensive agenda to take to the city council. Members could then either embrace it completely or take pieces of it. The important thing is to build the base. Sometimes you can get things done without a strong community base, but you then lack a sustainable foundation to preserve and expand your gains."

Building a base is exactly what DPA and other groups involved in the next-door Maryland Campaign for Treatment Not Incarceration have been up to for the past few years. With a massive heroin problem centered in Baltimore, Maryland is paying millions to imprison drug offenders and has some 5,000 in prison whose most serious crime is a drug offense. According to the state, 70% of those drug prisoners could use drug treatment.

"We're just finishing up the third legislative session since we've been around," said Tara Andrews, Baltimore-based co-director of the grassroots criminal justice and drug reform group Justice Maryland, which works with the Justice Policy Institute and DCMA, among other organizations. "While none of our big bills got through this year, we advocated for more money for drug treatment -- and got some! -- a return to judicial discretion in sentencing, and the restoration of voting rights for felons, as well as our broader sentencing reform agenda," she told DRCNet.

"We've been involved with DPA in Maryland for the last three years and we are having an impact," said Justice Policy Institute executive director Jason Zeidenberg. "We think we have laid the groundwork for continued work in Maryland to knock down the barriers to treatment instead of incarceration. That is now the policy presumption in the state, and now it is a matter of getting past complacency and getting bills through the legislature."

While ultimately unsuccessful at the statehouse this year, the effort leaves reformers well placed to make progress next year, Andrews said. "We were able to make many more friends at the statehouse and we gained many more community-based allies. We are making it hard for legislators not to pass these bills, and we'll come back next year and push hard again for judicial discretion and the restoration of voting rights, as well as a much more coordinated and aggressive push for more treatment dollars," she said.

DPA will continue to work on Maryland, but now the nation's capital is on its agenda, too. Washington, DC, brings its own set of obstacles and opportunities. For one thing, as a federal district, its budgets and laws are ultimately at the mercy of Congress. While Congress can -- and has -- acted to block reform measures, such as the yes vote on medical marijuana, the congressional bogeyman can be played to local advantage, said Long.

"This is a great way to bring in groups that are not necessarily interested in drug policy, but care very much about home rule," said Long. "When you talk about DC not being able to fund its own needle exchange, about how people here in the city are dying because Congress wants to keep us subservient, that's a home rule issue, and people will make the connections. Also, home rule is very dear to lots of people here, and if we're building a community-based movement, we have to frame the issues in a way that appeals to the people we're working with."

"Yes, it's true, we are talking about the disenfranchisement of 600,000 people in the District," said Nadelmann, admitting Congress could be an obstacle. "But the upside is that it is the nation's capital, there is national media attention, and it is the most national of our cities, with people from all 50 states working and living there. If and when Congress rejects some reform in DC, that rejection and the conflict that results will provide extensive opportunities to engage the media and do public education nationwide."

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Issue #433 -- 4/28/06

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