Mayors and The Future of Drug Policy Reform 

Mayors and The Future of Drug Policy Reform 
Posted by CN Staff on January 25, 2008 at 19:02:23 PT
By Will Leiter
Source: Harvard Political Review
Massachusetts  -- In June 2007 the United States Conference of Mayors adopted a resolution titled, “A New Bottom Line in Reducing the Harms of Substance Abuse.” The resolution, sponsored by Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, described America’s war on drugs as a failure and called for a new “public health approach” through drug policies that do not focus “solely on drug use levels or number of people imprisoned, but rather on the amount of drug-related harm reduced.” While the resolution is not binding and will have only symbolic significance, it represents a national trend of increasing municipal interest in drug policy reform.
Frustrated by the stagnation of federal and state reform efforts, mayors in many cities have implemented new drug policy models and alternatives. While the ability of mayors to alter drug policy is restricted by state and federal legislation, successful innovation at the city level will be the key to galvanizing debate on national drug policy. Facing the ConsequencesPerhaps more than any other elected officials, mayors immediately experience the effects of drug policy. Daniel Abrahamson, director of legal affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said, “Mayors are closest to the ground in the war on drugs…they know how [it] is being waged and its collateral consequences.” Similarly, mayors are generally involved with the implementation of drug policy on a nuts and bolts level. Anjuli Verma, advocacy director for the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project, told the HPR, “Mayors are on the front lines [of drug policy]… having to balance problems such as budget crises and overcrowded prisons.” She asserted that mayors typically differ from state and federal officials on drug policy since they “are forced to be more practical because their resources are more scarce.” But while mayors are most intimately connected to the effects of drug policies, they are not as connected to its creation. Drug legislation is typically designed at the federal and state levels, rather than at the city level, meaning mayors do not have a free hand in reform. The Complexity of Drug Laws Drug legislation is a legal gray area in the United States. While the federal government has enacted national regulatory legislation and sentencing guidelines, there are still state laws and sentencing guidelines on the books. Some municipal reforms do not encroach on state or federal legislation, such as efforts to encourage police to focus on reducing drug-related violence instead of private drug possession. But other initiatives do, such as the legalization of marijuana possession in Denver by a ballot initiative. When there is an encroachment of this kind, Verma explained, “The federal government is always free to enforce federal laws using federal resources,” but it “cannot force states to enforce those laws.” However, she also noted that the federal government rarely exercises this right, observing that the DEA is only involved in about two percent of drug arrests. The relationship between cities and states is more problematic, as cities are legally required to enforce state laws. Verma said that this means there “is less wiggle room between cities and states” than there is between cities and the federal government. But this flexibility can also work to a mayor’s advantage, as mayors are much more influential at the state level than the federal level. Ultimately, Abrahamson explained that a state response to a controversial municipal initiative is “fairly uncommon unless the politics of the state are such that the city is really in the minority.” Accordingly, because consequences for controversial initiatives are infrequent, cities have the latitude to innovate. The Role of Mayors Though mayors cannot directly affect drug legislation, they can both affect how that legislation is implemented and create their own initiatives. Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson told the HPR that in Salt Lake City he eliminated the DARE anti-drug education program used in public schools because he believed it was counterproductive. Additionally, he established a “good Samaritan” policy whereby hospitals cannot give police the information of those who help overdosing drug users in receiving medical attention. Previously, such individuals could face legal consequences for their action. While Mayor Anderson is one of the most visible proponents of drug reform, Salt Lake City is by no means the only city adopting innovative projects to change the War on Drugs. Mayors throughout the United States have created new models and projects by cooperating with other city officials, including police chiefs and district attorneys. Abrahamson said that examples of municipal drug policy reform include the establishment of health and housing services for addicts, the creation of syringe exchanges, and the use of rehabilitation programs instead of incarceration for certain drug offenses. “At least a dozen major cities are doing something innovative” related to drug policy reform, Abrahamson explained, including San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Portland, and others. Verma provided other examples, saying that mayors play “a huge role in setting the metrics for success by which law enforcement will be judged.” Specifically, she said that mayors have essentially forced police to deprioritize marijuana possession” in Seattle, Oakland, Santa Monica and elsewhere. By implementing such reforms, mayors can play a direct role in the way drug legislation affects their constituents. However, the most significant effects of municipal drug policy reform will be the broader reforms and debates that it makes possible.  Trial RunsBy testing out experimental projects and models, mayors and cities can provide evidence of proven alternatives to preexisting drug policies. Mayor Anderson told the HPR that cities are ideal laboratories for tinkering with drug policy because they can create a diverse array of alternative programs instead of using a “national, one-size-fits-all approach” that characterizes federal reforms. According to Verma, federal and state officials are often “afraid of being perceived as soft on crime,” creating a gridlock on the drug debate. But gridlock is not inevitable. Abrahamson said that for policy to change at the federal and state levels, public officials will “need to understand how current laws are not helping, and they won’t be able to without evidence of the successes of specific projects and models.” If cities provide evidence of preferable alternatives to existing drug policy, then the political gridlock may be overcome. There are still serious obstacles to drug policy reform, even at the local level. A reform-minded mayor cannot go it alone, and still requires the cooperation of other local officials and the support of their constituents. Abrahamson described municipal reform as possible “only when the stars align” in support of it. But in spite of these difficulties, the “trickle-up” of reform seems the most likely path for change in the War on Drugs. Complete Title: A New Bottom Line: Mayors and The Future of Drug Policy Reform Source: Harvard Political Review (MA)Author: Will LeiterPublished: January 19, 2008Copyright: 2008 Harvard Political ReviewContact: hpronline hpronline.orgWebsite: Justice Archives
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Comment #1 posted by John Tyler on January 26, 2008 at 18:37:41 PT
good article
Reform minded politicians at the state and national level are afraid of being tagged as “soft on crime” if they support sensible reform. Actually drug law reform is “smart on crime”. Things are slowly changing at he grassroots level. Some people are starting to notice. It’s time our state and national representatives got a clue and got "smart on crime" and ended the Drug War where everybody, but mostly the poor are the causalities and our freedom and respect for law is the collateral damage.
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