NEW YORK — New York's feisty, crime-fighting mayor may find his biggest challenge in a young man named Kalvin. The 10th-grader says he's a former drug dealer who still routinely gets high on marijuana.
"People may smoke or do stuff because they have problems, too much stress,... so they smoke," says Kalvin, high strung, smiling, shifting from foot to foot on a gray fall day in front of the Benjamin Cardozo High School in Queens.
Across the street on the school's steps, Rudolph Giuliani, whose reelection next week is all but assured, was pledging to reduce drug use across the city by as much as 70 percent over the next four years. It's a lofty goal that, if he succeeds, could be a model for other cities grappling with the seemingly intractable problem of drug abuse, particularly among adolescents.
"The crime rate is down 45, 50 percent. Four years ago, nobody thought that was possible," says Mayor Giuliani. "Now, no one thinks it's possible to cut heroin, cocaine, and marijuana [use] 50, 60, 70 percent. But it is possible."
Most drug-abuse experts are greeting Giuliani's pledge with applause and, as the mayor predicted, a heavy dose of skepticism. New York has one of the most persistent, long-term problems with hard drugs of any city in America. Half a million New Yorkers are believed to be drug addicted. Some 70 to 80 percent of people arrested every year test positive for drug use. The cost to the city - in terms of crime, corrections, and treatment - is an estimated $20 billion annually.
Few of the experts who've looked at the mayor's blueprint to combat drug use believe it will bring about the promised results, primarily because it emphasizes a "get-tough approach" and does not provide enough resources for treatment programs.
"It's the same old failed policy which, for 30 years, has provided politicians with a convenient rallying cry as the problem steadily worsened," says Charles Adler of Partnership for Responsible Drug Information, a nonprofit drug-information center here.
Giuliani disagrees. His plan combines law enforcement, treatment, and prevention and education. On the law-enforcement side, the mayor will simply build on his current success by putting even more specially targeted police on the streets. During the past four years, special units were set up in two areas with the most severe drug problems. The result was more than 100,000 drug arrests in 1996, a record high, and drug seizures were up more than 50 percent.
The mayor now proposes to hire 1,000 more police to target five other areas with entrenched drug problems. Undercover cops have already started sting operations, selling drugs to unwitting buyers and busting them on the spot in Washington Square Park, long known as the center for drug activity in Greenwich Village.
He's also setting up an antidrug hot line, more than doubling the number of drug-free school zones, and setting up a curfew program for juvenile offenders with drug convictions.
On the prevention side, he proposes to add more antidrug programs in the schools, expand mentoring programs, and urge businesses to offer everything from designs for antidrug ad campaigns to free movie passes for kids in antidrug programs.
Experts say the weakest leg of his program is treatment. Eighty percent of some 20,000 people in the city's jails are substance abusers. The mayor is proposing to add 500 new drug-treatment beds, bringing the total to 1,500.
"That's still ridiculous. We need probably 10 times that number," says Sister Marion Defeis, a chaplain at the city jail on Rikers Island.
Many experts agree that increased treatment is the key to any drug-fighting strategy. A recent Rand Corp. study found that treatment - as opposed to simply locking up addicts - is 10 times more effective in preventing the repeat of serious crimes.
"We know that drug treatment is more humane and less expensive, but it's also more effective," says Robert Gangi of the Correctional Association of New York, a nonprofit think tank.
A question of commitment
Despite long waiting lists for treatment at Rikers Island, the mayor insists there are plenty of drug-treatment resources available for any addict serious about getting clean. But he is adamant that the city not spend a dime on people who will use the drug-treatment system to "scam" authorities for a short while, then end up back on the street.
"To break an addiction requires enormous effort, tremendous commitment, and if you're willing to make it, we'll supply the program for you," says Giuliani.
Many drug experts in New York doubt he can fulfill that pledge. They also say if Giuliani is serious about combatting drugs, he must address the needs of addicts who don't want treatment. "That would take a commitment of resources roughly equal to the budget of the [city's] correctional system," says Bruce Johnson of the National Development and Research Institute, a nonprofit center that studies drug use.