What If U.S. Cities Just Stopped Participating in the War on Drugs?

An idea whose time may have finally come. 

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HBO

Spring means budget season for local governments across the United States, and Steve Novick, a city commissioner in Portland, Oregon, has a proposal he thinks could save his city a nice chunk of change: slashing funding for the Portland Police Bureau's Drugs and Vice Division. The division, which largely targets drug dealers, costs $3.9 million annually to operate, and Novick's idea is to redirect a substantial portion of that budget to improving dangerous intersections where pedestrians are killed each year, as well as to better preparing the city for disasters—particularly the big earthquake that could strike Portland any day now. 

“I noticed that we're spending about $4 million a year on the drugs and vice unit,” says Novick. “And there seems to be a lot of evidence that pursuing drug dealers is kind of a losing battle, because you arrest one and another pops up.”

Novick describes himself as “ambivalent” about drug legalization, and says his proposal is about the best use of tax dollars. “We can limit our inefficient expenditures of money without repealing drug laws,” he says. “It's up to the city to determine how much money it's going to spend chasing drugs dealers.”

The idea might sound reminiscent of the “Hamsterdam” episode of HBO's The Wire, in which a police major, tired of fighting a losing battle, designates certain areas of Baltimore as zones where drugs can be openly sold. 

But Portland isn't Baltimore, and Novick's idea wouldn't go that far. He says he'd like to see funding for the unit cut by half, and precinct officers would still enforce drug laws. Portland just wouldn't be spending nearly as much money on enforcing drug laws.

As gridlock has become the norm in Washington, U.S. cities are increasingly going it alone in the search for solutions to the country's big problems. Members of Congress from both parties say they're aware of the soaring costs associated with the drug war, but they're still not anywhere close to enacting sweeping reforms. Even a bipartisan bill intended to lock up fewer low-level drug offenders introduced last year remains stuck in committee. (In April, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency that develops sentencing guidelines for federal courts, voted to reduce penalties for most federal drug traffickers. However, the move will have a small impact that even the commission's chair describes as "modest.")

Cities, far less encumbered by partisan dysfunction, are in a unique position to make changes to the way the country carries out the war on drugs.

Jill Harris, managing director for strategic initiatives at the Drug Policy Alliance, says she hasn't heard of any other city taking an approach like Novick's, but she doesn't see any downsides to it. 

“The problem with these special drug units is that their measure of success is number of arrests,” says Harris. “It's not less drugs. It's not less people going to prison. It's how many arrests you do, and arresting people for drugs is like shooting fish in a barrel.” 

Although Novick's idea might be the most radical, Harris says that other cities are also enacting their own reforms. She notes that Santa Fe and Seattle, fed up with cycling the same drug addicts in and out of courts and jail, have begun diverting drug users out of the criminal justice system and into a community-based rehabilitation program called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. She also points to Ken Thompson, a Brooklyn prosecutor, who's said he will stop prosecuting people caught with small amounts of marijuana.

While Harris says it might make sense for cities to stop throwing money at the drug war, she adds that there are limits to this approach. Federal grants aimed at combating drugs are tricky to redirect, and many anti-drug efforts are funded through civil forfeiture of cash and other assets seized from dealers. Reforming the drug war on the local level also requires political actors to be in alignment, says Harris, but it can produce results.  

Mark Kleiman, a UCLA professor of public policy, believes that the U.S. is overly invested in a war on drugs that aims to achieve “abstract goals.” Instead, he says, drug policy should be crafted with specific public health or safety goals in mind, and with the aim of forcing the market for illicit substances to function in the least socially destructive way possible. If a drug dealer is arrested, he says, another one is likely to take their place, so cities shouldn't devote too many resources to interrupting the drug supply.

“What are you telling the police to do?” says Kleiman. “If you're telling them to win the drug war, that's a silly instruction. We've been asking the police for the last 40 years to essentially pursue a public health mission to reduce the supply of illegal drugs. That's probably not a good use of public resources.”

Kleiman notes that open-air drug markets and drug houses are often coupled with other crimes, so it may make more sense for cities to devote resources to combating them and not discreet drug deals. 

Europe's more tolerant public-health-oriented approach to drugs began in its cities. In 1990, representatives from the cities of Amsterdam, Zurich, Hamburg, and Frankfurt gathered together in Frankfurt, Germany, to discuss new approaches to drug policy. Their conclusion: “The attempt to eliminate drugs and drug consumption from our civilizations has failed.” It went on to call for decriminalization and harm reduction, among other reforms. More cities signed on to the resolution, which eventually became the basis for drug policy in Germany and influenced countries throughout the continent.

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