July 8, 2009

The never-ending story

With the help of federal dollars, Louisville wages a war on drugs. But is this fight futile?

On a day when Kentucky’s 3rd District U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth was to announce a Great Leap Forward in Louisville’s “battle against drug trafficking,” the security personnel of the Romano L. Mazzoli Federal Building didn’t check any of us media for weapons or drugs.

For that laughing matter, unfortunately, there’s the logic underlying the announcement itself.

Yarmuth’s successful petitioning of the Office of National Drug Control Policy to designate Jefferson County as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (or a HIDTA) is rife with the same vaudevillian methodology that has dominated the past 40 years of drug policy in the United States — from Nixon to Reagan to Clinton to Bush — leaving in its wake record-breaking incarceration rates (nationally, one in 10 of us is currently in jail), enormous taxpayer burden, marginal tangible benefits, and a veritable generation of disenfranchised African Americans.[1]

It will also blur the interdepartmental, red-taped lines that normally separate local, state and federal agencies regarding drug enforcement, allowing for a level of sophistication and coordination of policing never before seen in Kentucky outside Appalachia, whose prolific, third-largest-in-the-nation marijuana output has already earned the region HIDTA status.

“For years, the men and women of law enforcement in this community have been waging a battle against drug trafficking,” Yarmuth says, standing at the multi-mic’d podium in the modest 10th-floor conference room. As he talks, he parrots excerpts of a speech printed onto an accompanying handout written in the third person, past tense, adding to my overall sense of time displacement — what year is this?[2]

“I am proud we could get Jefferson County a seat at the table to access the resources our law enforcement personnel deserve,” he continues.

To be sure, the Louisville Metro Police Department and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office (and even a Federale!) are here, each with their own legitimate needs and respective representatives saying how crucially important the funding is, the latter no doubt securing a law-and-order vote that will prove crucial for Yarmuth to win next year’s apocalyptically themed election.

“This is a bad day for people who deal in drugs,” says Jefferson County Sheriff John Aubrey, adding that no single agency can do it alone. “[The HIDTA] designation is the priority, because without it there would be no money.”

As far as the money goes, Aubrey is right on: Local and state authorities will now draw an as-yet-determined amount of their budgetary water from a $248 million federal well, as allocated to the Office of National Drug Control Policy via senatorial appropriations. Now that our county is officially one of 31 HIDTAs nationwide, the move symbolically places Louisville Metro in the same league with major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, Detroit, New York City and Baltimore, plus a string of Mexican-border areas where the result of our current anti-drug strategies threatens to engulf the Southwestern United States in cocaine-fueled Armageddon.

Translation? More officers’ pensions, more arrests and more “CSI”-style gadgetry paid for by federal taxes when the commonwealth is facing a $1 billion shortfall for the next fiscal year. Securing funds for cops is always good politics, but is it good policy?

Consider the net effects of HIDTA programs already in place. From the U.S. Department of Justice website: “Equally taxing to public health resources in the [Baltimore] HIDTA region are the social and health consequences of cocaine and heroin abuse, which is multigenerational in some areas. For example, in Baltimore, both parents and children are enrolling in heroin abuse treatment programs.”

Or, picking an example a little closer to home, consider those effects HIDTA has had upon Appalachia, wherein the roots of drug abuse and drug-related violence (i.e. nonexistent educational attainment, absentee corporate land-ownership, lack of economic opportunity, etc.) have little to do with and are not addressed by any of HIDTA’s purported mission statements. But at least it pays to be a cop in Pikeville.

Likewise, the cyclical nature of drug-related crime virtually guarantees that more Louisvillians than ever will wind up in jail or receiving state- or nonprofit-funded treatment of some kind — most of it at great cost to a taxpaying electorate already footing the bill for the financial and auto bailouts, as well as increased tobacco and alcohol taxes.

As has happened in HIDTA-approved environs like Chicago, L.A. and the aforementioned Baltimore, the other result is an exponentially increased prison population, which is bursting at its seams, draining already scarce fiscal resources and doing little (if anything) to prevent recidivism.

Clearly there’s no solution here, as these newly christened felons re-emerge in a society that will not rent them an apartment, give them a loan, or allow them to vote, but insists that they grapple with an economy so shitty that to not sell drugs is the stupidest, starvation-inducing decision they could make. From felon to law-abiding taxpayer, it’s a system that has only grown more toxic with age, affecting us all.

In other words, it’s a process not unlike throwing money into a hole in the ground, except that the hole keeps getting bigger the more money you throw into it.

Excited at the possibilities in store for the force, Louisville Metro Police Lt. Col. Troy Riggs adds that the city is very committed to the fight against drugs, so much so that despite the present lack of general funding, they currently have more officers on the streets than ever. Then another speaker, Assistant Special Agent Rich Badaracco of the Drug Enforcement Administration, says more of the same: “We’re delighted that we have [HIDTA status] … It will tie [our resources] to the rest of the nation. It’s an absolute win-win.”

It finally occurs to me that I am, in fact, unstuck in time, perhaps somewhere in the mid-80s, a time when the War on Drugs had yet to become another discredited yet blindly followed ideology awaiting a linguistic re-branding at the hands of future politicos looking to earmark a few bucks.

Going out on a limb, I ask Yarmuth, essentially, if the continuation of this Reagan-era initiative made any sense in lieu of its abject and numerous failures.

“Law enforcement is just one aspect,” he answers. “Obviously, education is another. We have never treated drugs as a health problem in this country. But we will reassess the program as we go along and determine whether it’s the right approach.”

Spoken like a true junkie, but what should I have expected? Without a visible signal from the Obama administration that it intends to measurably break “from the failed policies of the past,” you can’t really fault a Kentucky congressman for not building a better mousetrap — especially if that trap is holding a wad of cash.

[1] This is especially true in Louisville: More than half of the state’s black population (52 percent) resides in Jefferson County. Though they only comprise less than 10 percent of the state’s population, they populate our 130 jails by a nearly five-to-one ratio.

[2] FWIW, the HIDTA program started in 1988.

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