Drug War, Endless Violence -- Hartford Looks for a New Way 9/23/05

from DRCNet.org

Like every major American city, Hartford, Connecticut, has been fighting the war on drugs for decades. Despite drug bust after drug bust, sensational killing after sensational killing, it seems like much has happened but little has changed. The young, predominantly black men of Hartford continue to fill the state's jails and prison on drug charges, the violence associated with the black market drug trade continues -- and grows worse despite (or because of) intense law enforcement efforts, and illicit drugs remain easily and cheaply available, especially in the street dealing scene of the city's northeast side.

In Connecticut, black and Latino males make up less than 6% of the population, but they account for almost 70% of the state prison population of roughly 20,000. And they account for the vast majority of the roughly 14,000 drug offenders doing time in Connecticut.

This year alone, Hartford has seen a series of major drug busts -- 52 arrested in a federal crack conspiracy case early this year, 28 more in one fell swoop in late August -- and a law enforcement "Northeast Violence Reduction Initiative" that has rolled up even more young men and women. But with the violence continuing, the city is now about to embark on a path that could lead to a shift from drug war business as usual to a more rational approach to the problem of illegal drug sales and related violence in the city.

Downtown Hartford

The city of Hartford and one of its largest corporate citizens, the Aetna insurance group, are sponsoring a conference October 21 and 22 aimed at evaluating the city's approach to drug law enforcement and reassessing just where the city can best have an impact on the problem. The city is contributing $10,000 and Aetna is kicking in $25,000 to fund "Hartford's Illicit Drug Burden -- Where to Put Our Resources," which will bring state and local law enforcement, political, and community leaders together with outside experts and drug reformers in an effort to bring some fresh ideas to the decades-old war on drugs.

While the conference is officially a city initiative, local drug reform activist Cliff Thornton and his organization Efficacy deserve credit for years of pounding away at state and local officials for change. For this conference, Thornton worked quietly behind the scenes to ensure that a radical reform message would be heard and heard again.

"I don't know of any other city that has sponsored a drug conference like this," said Thornton, "and I think it's going to spread. They wanted to make it as good as possible, and I agree with that. I'm just trying to make sure the drug reform people will get the biggest bang for the buck," he told DRCNet.

"I didn't want Efficacy to be up front, for obvious reasons," Thornton continued, "but if you look at the schedule of speakers, we're probably the main driver behind it, and that's how I prefer to do it. We want to get as many authorities as possible at the conference, and we want a broad cross-section of interested parties as well."

The line-up is indeed impressive on both counts. Officials who will attend and address the conference include Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez, Police Chief Patrick Harnett (or his designee), and City Councilman Robert Painter, as well as New Haven drug court Judge Jorge Simone, local DEA representative Mark Kaczynski and a member of the state attorney general's office who is yet to be named. They will be joined by a variety of community figures, including Trinity College president Jimmy Jones, Merrille Friedman of the Connecticut Alcohol and Substance Abuse Council, and Maureen Price of Community Partners in Action.

A stellar roster of nationally known drug reform advocates will also address the conference, including Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, Roger Goodman, director of the King County (Washington) Bar Association's Drug Policy Project; Law Enforcement Against Prohibition executive director Jack Cole, Students for Sensible Drug Policy executive director Scarlett Swerdlow, California NORML executive director Dale Gieringer, Nick Eyle of New York's ReconsiDer: Forum on Drug Policy, and retired Judge Arthur Burnett, head of the National African American Drug Policy Coalition.

The effort to win the hearts and minds of Hartford and state top cops and elected officials won't stop when each day's sessions end, Thornton said, but will continue in more informal dinner groups. "Right now, I'm trying to schedule Jack Cole to have dinner with the Hartford police chief and the chief of the state police, and I'm trying to get another dinner together where the mayor and some state representatives sit down with Roger Goodman and Nicky Eyle, who helped lead the way with the Syracuse audit," Thornton said. In Syracuse, then auditor Minch Lewis produced an audit of drug war spending that virtually shouted out for changed priorities.

And it won't stop with dinner meetings, either, Thornton emphasized. "There has to be a follow-up to this, and we already have in the planning stages, again sponsored by the city and Aetna."

For Thornton, the October conference is a concrete result of years of relentless activism. "We've been doing this type of work for years, and it's been a constant, repeated message of legalization, decrminalization, and medicalization. The Hartford Police Department and the state police hold press conferences to talk about all the drug dealers they've arrested, but it's pretty much the same old thing," he said. "At one of those press conferences, I told them that all they would achieve is a record number of shootings and killings, and that's what we've got now."

Thornton was also able to entice official interest by suggesting Connecticut cities follow the example of nearby Syracuse. "I forwarded that to the city council in Hartford and asked them to do the same thing. They said let's get together, and now here we are."

The Syracuse example is exciting interest beyond Hartford, said Thornton. "I forwarded that Syracuse audit to just about every city government in Connecticut, and eight cities got right back to me. Four of them are in the process of planning something like what we're doing in Hartford." In good time, said Thornton. "I want to hold off on those until we do Hartford; I want to use that as a template," he said, adding that the Hartford conference would be a test drive for future municipal conferences.

A call for an audit of Hartford's drug control spending will hopefully be a key part of the action plan that will emerge from the conference, said Thornton. "We will try to push the city to have an audit for the purpose of finding out where they're spending the money. Actually, we already know most of it goes for law enforcement, but an official audit would make that crystal clear, and could be the basis for really changing the way Hartford approaches the drug war."

Other favorable outcomes would include the writing of an ordinance to make marijuana offenses the "lowest law enforcement priority," and a move to dismantle the ubiquitous law enforcement drug task forces. "These are things we want to see come out of the conference," Thornton said.

It is now a little more than three weeks until the Hartford conference, and Thornton is making the most of it. "I'm scheduled to do countless radio and TV slots talking up the conference in the next few weeks, and Councilman Painter has a similar media schedule. I've been getting op-eds in the local newspapers. I know how to work the media, and by now, most of the local media knows me and how credible I am. It also helped that I spoke at those press conferences the police like to hold."

For Thornton, the forthcoming conference is vindication of a sort. "When I started talking to people about ending the war on drugs, about legalization and medicalization, they would tell me I was crazy. Now 90% of people who listen to me agree with me. I don't know if it's because I became a better speaker -- with 450 speaking engagements in the past few years, I get lots of practice -- or just because people are getting it, but they are getting it."

Now, thanks to the upcoming Hartford conference, and possibly similar ones in other Connecticut cities, state and municipal elected and law enforcement officials are going to have a chance to get it as well.

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