decriminalization of drugs

Decriminalization: The Cure for Urban Violence


Detroiters are daily witnesses to the worst results from drugs and violence — and not just because — as the Detroit News recently reported – police ranks have shrunk and the narcotics unit disbanded.

images-1I can’t get inside the head of Detroit Police Chief James Craig. I’m not qualified to flyspeck his crime-fighting strategy. But I’m certain that he sees all the social ills that accompany drug use. And if the chief has determined that too many resources were directed to a drug war that can’t be won by conventional means, it makes sense to stop chasing street dealers, cut back on drug house raids and deploy resources to combat more manageable crime.

More importantly, the failure of the “war on drugs” should cause all Detroiters to give serious thought to removing criminal penalties from those that tear at the core of the city.

Drugs began a death march, killing and destroying family relationships and neighborhoods decades ago.

Thirty years ago, for example, there was a consensus that comprehensive, community-based and collaborative prevention measures held the most promise for forestalling a child’s early initiation into drug usage. The thinking then was that the tug-o-war with children’s minds needed to start early if the ghetto’s gluttonous appetite for getting high was to be checked. But hitting kids hard and often with anti-drug messages failed to turn them against drugs before they were exposed to the pusher.

That’s because the lessons taught on street corners are compelling and seductive. Drug dealers are often the heroes, role models and symbols of success to children who see few other options.

There too was a recognition that the first responsibility for controlling this problem belonged to parents. Schools also needed to reinforce principles of personal responsibility. Today, a combination of drugs and parental apathy now weakens the vitality and mission of schools. Cohesive families are vanishing and drug-free children and academic excellence are a rare combination.

Crime prevention historically meant getting a handle on drug trafficking through interdiction and massive crackdowns. We bought into that too. The less-than-encouraging war on drugs is evidence that cops chasing down dealers isn’t a cure-all for drug-infested communities.

Neighborhoods are more violent; crime more ruthless. Drug dealing, drug abusing and drug-oriented gangs have laid siege upon a defenseless people. The best efforts to sweep the city’s streets of drug dealers are laughable. Even when police rack-up record numbers of drug arrests, offenders quickly make their way back to the street due to a lack of jail space.

Our dissent to this lamentable state was not achieved by setting program objectives too high or too low, or through cutting the police budget, bad administration or lack of compassion. It is the result of trying to deal with the consequences instead of trying to get to the root of the problem. It’s clear by now that the roots are entrenched in the supply and demand side of the equation.

Thousands of Detroiters, recreational and hardcore users, have a voracious appetite for, or addiction to drugs. Suburbanites are willing to risk their lives by venturing into the bowels of the city to purchase contraband.

High demand means there are mega-profits in the “game.” Mega-profits means there is no shortage of people  willing to meet the demand and give customers what they want, even at the risk of prison or death.

Addicts will cross any boundary to obtain the next fix. Pushers have a low tolerance for those who invade their turf. Drug deals often go bad, ending in death for buyers, sellers and innocent bystanders.

A powerful argument can be now be made in favor of decriminalizing the hard drugs that spawn most of the violence. Legalizing them would take the profits out of the trade. No profits lead to less violence.

We now have a pretty good idea of what does not work. It’s time for the next step.

Better to address addictive behavior through education and treatment than continue to roll the dice on not becoming a victim of our intransigence.


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