D.C.'s Lesson: Public Drug Policy Should Reach Beyond Arrests
WASHINGTON — IT'S a telling moment when R. Benjamin Johnson, a top-level city administrator, pauses mid-sentence, his eyes well with tears, and he covers his face with one hand. What moves the city's acting public-housing director is not the strain of fighting for a wedge of the city's dwindling fiscal pie, nor even the daily pressures of handling a poverty agency. It is the strain of the drug crisis.
Mr. Johnson says he is haunted by the four-year-old child whose family had been terrorized in their public-housing complex for seven hours by drug dealers avenging a drug robbery by the child's older brother.
```It'll be OK mama,''' he remembers the child comforting her crying mother as the family sat in Johnson's executive suite while he anxiously sought a way to protect the family.
``I didn't tell the management [of her housing complex].... We made up an eviction'' and swiftly, confidentially moved the family, he says. ``I can't make a single mistake,'' he says of the responsibility he feels for the family's safety.
This isn't the half of it.
Thumbing through a thick folder, Johnson calls out a list of problem cases - M-16 rifles, shotguns, 110 ounces of crack.
His job description has grown geometrically as the drug problem has grown bigger than the policy meant to contain it.
Because the drug crisis is mainly attacked through arrests and, to a lesser extent, treatment, antidrug policies often miss the mark, say antidrug experts.
``We need to think in a broader way [about drugs], it's not the kind of narrow field people have wanted to believe [it is].... It is a complex set of problems,'' explains Johanna Ferman, executive medical director of the District of Columbia's Institute for Mental Health.
Antidrug experts who explain that everyone - public officials or private citizens - faced with a drug problem within their purview finds that they have a problem that touches areas such as law enforcement, mental and physical health, child welfare, education, and even spiritual issues.
Coordination of these areas is public policy, but how well it is carried out, whether it's backed with official authority or funds, determines success.
In Washington, for example, the city's drug-control policy office was often criticized for being ineffective at coordinating city services. But, given no funds to create programs, it was forced to cajole city agencies to cooperate in drug strategy. Former Mayor Marion Barry, himself a convicted drug user, did not give the agency the authority to do much, say both the former and current directors. Faced with a fiscal crisis, the new mayor, Sharon Pratt Dixon, last week announced that the drug-control policy office will end. The driving force behind drug policy should be the mayor herself, she says.
What the agency couldn't address, but was able to identify, was the city's need for broader citizen participation in policing and demanding city services, as well as the need for agencies to integrate social-service support systems.
WASHINGTON boasts some of the nation's most impressive efforts at drug control: The city's arrest rates have at times reached one drug arrest for every 13 citizens. It was picked by the Bush administration as the model city for an attack on domestic demand for drugs. A real dent has been made in the number of open-air drug markets, and illegal drug use has taken a slight dip.
Yet here is what is heard on the street:
A veteran narcotics officer says ``we're failing miserably'' to control drugs.
The head nurse in the pediatric ward of the only hospital in the city's poorest, most drug-infested area says that, gauging from the steady arrival of abandoned newborns of drug-addicted mothers, she sees no end to the crisis.
The demand-reduction focus of antidrug policy continues to get short shrift in both the amount of money and thought put into it, says Cynthia B. Harris, special assistant to the mayor for drug policy and the city's top drug official. Her position is being cut by the mayor.
``Our problem isn't interdiction or importation. We're the end users; we fuel the demand... and none of the organized [antidrug] programs reflect it,'' says Ms. Harris, whose own 17-year-old son was killed by a man who used drugs in 1988.
A broad, progressive antidrug policy is a relatively new concept in the United States and has not been refined, explains Sterling Tucker, Washington's first drug czar, who resigned last summer to run for Congress.
FOR a generation, drugs were a part of the ``culture of the sophisticated,'' says Mr. Tucker. ``It was not a public policy issue because our governments didn't have to appropriate funds to deal with the problems of the affluent who had drug problems.''
Not until it became an issue for taxpayers - when drugs suddenly multiplied among the inner-city poor, when drug-related crime and violence increased and flooded the criminal justice system, when the demand for treatment far outstripped the public services available - did governments begin to put earnest thought to the problem, he says.
``Our taxpayers aren't willing to pay for it. The federal government and the people want to talk about how to reduce the crimes related to drugs - period,'' he says.
Tucker tells how city officials denied his request to create a $250,000 block captain program because they were afraid it would whet the appetite for services for poor neighborhoods `` . . the way [citizens] demand services in Georgetown . . like the quarter of a millon spent one night [for Halloween police patrols],'' he says. The biggest success for the city drug-policy office was its ``Reclaim Our Streets'' program. For five months, 16 city agencies ``did what government agencies are supposed to do'' in the drug-infested Valley Green area forgotten by those agencies, Harris says.
The problem, she says, is that it was too expensive to sustain - about $22 million.