Source: Harvard Political Review
By Will Leiter
20 January 2008
A New Bottom Line
Harvard Political Review
In June 2007 the United States Conference of Mayors adopted a resolution
titled, A New Bottom Line in Reducing the Harms of Substance Abuse. The
resolution, sponsored by Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, described Americas
war on drugs as a failure and called for a new public health approach
through drug policies that do not focus solely on drug use levels or number of
people imprisoned, but rather on the amount of drug-related harm reduced.
While the resolution is not binding and will have only symbolic significance, it
represents a national trend of increasing municipal interest in drug policy
reform. Frustrated by the stagnation of federal and state reform efforts,
mayors in many cities have implemented new drug policy models and alternatives.
While the ability of mayors to alter drug policy is restricted by state and
federal legislation, successful innovation at the city level will be the key
to galvanizing debate on national drug policy.
Facing the Consequences
Perhaps more than any other elected officials, mayors immediately experience
the effects of drug policy. Daniel Abrahamson, director of legal affairs for
the Drug Policy Alliance, said, Mayors are closest to the ground in the war
on drugs they know how [it] is being waged and its collateral consequences.
Similarly, mayors are generally involved with the implementation of drug
policy on a nuts and bolts level. Anjuli Verma, advocacy director for the ACLU
Drug Law Reform Project, told the HPR. Mayors are on the front lines [of
drug policy] having to balance problems such as budget crises and overcrowded
prisons. She asserted that mayors typically differ from state and federal
officials on drug policy since they are forced to be more practical because
their resources are more scarce. But while mayors are most intimately connected
to the effects of drug policies, they are not as connected to its creation.
Drug legislation is typically designed at the federal and state levels,
rather than at the city level, meaning mayors do not have a free hand in reform.
The Complexity of Drug Laws
Drug legislation is a legal grey area in the United States. While the
federal government has enacted national regulatory legislation and sentencing
guidelines, there are still state laws and sentencing guidelines on the books.
Some municipal reforms do not encroach on state or federal legislation, such as
efforts to encourage police to focus on reducing drug-related violence
instead of private drug possession. But other initiatives do, such as the
legalization of marijuana possession in Denver by a ballot initiative. When there is
an encroachment of this kind, Verma explained. The federal government is
always free to enforce federal laws using federal resources, but it cannot
force states to enforce those laws. However, she also noted that the federal
government rarely exercises this right, observing that the DEA is only involved
in about two percent of drug arrests.
The relationship between cities and states is more problematic, as cities are
legally required to enforce state laws. Verma said that this means there is
less wiggle room between cities and states than there is between cities and
the federal government. But this flexibility can also work to a mayors
advantage, as mayors are much more influential at the state level than the
federal level. Ultimately, Abrahamson explained that a state response to a
controversial municipal initiative is fairly uncommon unless the politics of the
state are such that the city is really in the minority. Accordingly, because
consequences for controversial initiatives are infrequent, cities have the
latitude to innovate.
The Role of Mayors
Though mayors cannot directly affect drug legislation, they can both affect
how that legislation is implemented and create their own initiatives. Salt
Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson told the HPR that in Salt Lake City he
eliminated the DARE anti-drug education program used in public schools because he
believed it was counterproductive. Additionally, he established a good Samaritan
policy whereby hospitals cannot give police the information of those who
help overdosing drug users in receiving medical attention. Previously, such
individuals could face legal consequences for their action. While Mayor Anderson
is one of the most visible proponents of drug reform, Salt Lake City is by
no means the only city adopting innovative projects to change the War on
Mayors throughout the United States have created new models and projects by
cooperating with other city officials, including police chiefs and district
attorneys. Abrahamson said that examples of municipal drug policy reform
include the establishment of health and housing services for addicts, the creation
of syringe exchanges, and the use of rehabilitation programs instead of
incarceration for certain drug offenses. At least a dozen major cities are doing
something innovativeâ€ related to drug policy reform, Abrahamson explained,
including San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Portland, and others.
Verma provided other examples, saying that mayors play â€œa huge role in
setting the metrics for success by which law enforcement will be judged.
Specifically, she said that mayors have essentially forced police to deprioritize
marijuana possession in Seattle, Oakland, Santa Monica and elsewhere. By
implementing such reforms, mayors can play a direct role in the way drug legislation
affects their constituents. However, the most significant effects of
municipal drug policy reform will be the broader reforms and debates that it makes
By testing out experimental projects and models, mayors and cities can
provide evidence of proven alternatives to preexisting drug policies. Mayor
Anderson told the HPR that cities are ideal laboratories for tinkering with drug
policy because they can create a diverse array of alternative programs instead
of using a national, one-size-fits-all approach that characterizes federal
reforms. According to Verma, federal and state officials are often afraid
of being perceived as soft on crime, creating a gridlock on the drug debate.
But gridlock is not inevitable. Abrahamson said that for policy to change at
the federal and state levels, public officials will need to understand how
current laws are not helping, and they won’t be able to without evidence of
the successes of specific projects and models. If cities provide evidence of
preferable alternatives to existing drug policy, then the political gridlock
may be overcome. There are still serious obstacles to drug policy reform, even
at the local level. A reform-minded mayor cannot go it alone, and still
requires the cooperation of other local officials and the support of their
constituents. Abrahamson described municipal reform as possible only when the
stars align in support of it. But in spite of these difficulties, the
trickle-up of reform seems the most likely path for change in the War on Drugs.