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Articles - Crime, police & trafficking
Written by Lynn Zimmer   
Thursday, 23 December 1993 00:00

Lynn Zimmer, Ph.D.


In the early 1980s, I conducted a study of Operation Pressure Point, an attempt by the New York City Police Department to disrupt street-level drug dealing in a relatively poor and run-down area of New York - the Lower East Side. For several years, open drug markets had been becoming more prevalent in this part of the city, largely because of the daily influx of customers from neighborhoods where drugs were harder to obtain, more costly, or of poorer quality.

Residents of the Lower East Side were upset by the growing size and increasingly blatant character of this drug market. Day and night, buyers and sellers occupied the streets, conducting their business openly, without much regard for the impact of their activities on the community. Property crime increased, as did people's fear of crime. But perhaps even more important was that the presence of this drug market - out in the open and visible to everyone - symbolized the inability of the police to maintain public order and thereby added to the more general feeling that the city was becoming unmanageable.

After considerable community pressure, the police department created Operation Pressure Point which involved the assignment of about 250 officers into a several block area where the "drug scene" was most intense. The most common police tactic was the "buy and bust," in which undercover officers posed as drug buyers and then uniformed officers moved in to arrest the sellers. As the police were "taking back the streets," helicopters flew overhead. Cars were towed and seized. Abandoned buildings were boarded up. Parks and vacant lots were fenced off. In many ways, Operation Pressure Point resembled a military operation, and the police an occupying army. During the first few months, more than 7,000 people were arrested for buying, selling or possessing drugs.

Operation Pressure Point was one of the first major efforts in the United States to disrupt street-level drug markets. Over the next several years, similar operations were put in force, not only in other New York neighborhoods, but in cities across the country. Each was started with high expectations. Almost all ended in disappointment. However, there have been a few successes. In fact, Operation Pressure Point was, to some extent, a success particularly in the Lower East Side's more middle-class neighborhoods. In general, when the police enter middle-class communities with this kind of operation they succeed in driving away many drug dealers. In poor communities, the open drug markets are never dismantled. Today, ten years after Operation Pressure Point was begun, American prisons are filled with low-level drug offenders - hundreds of thousands of them - and drug markets still operate openly in the poor neighborhoods of most American cities.

The irony of my presence here in Germany is that we (in the United States) have a lot more to learn from your approach to drug enforcement than you have to learn from ours. In fact, I see my role primarily as one of encouraging your continued commitment to a minimalist law enforcement policy. I know this approach has critics. I have heard that "open drug scenes" are growing in many Europeans cities and that pressure is being applied to the police to take action against them. Because the drug scenes are smaller here, it is perhaps easier for people to believe that the police can eradicate them. The problem is that, in trying to do so, they may not only fail to make matters better, but actually make them worse. In the United States, police actions have generally made matters worse - worse for drug users and for everyone else. Despite that, there continues to be widespread support for a this policy and, in fact, the new mayor of New York was elected after promising that his administration would conduct more drug sweeps and arrest more low-level drug offenders.

Support for a mass-arrest policy has been strong across the political spectrum in the United States and has been particularly strong in inner-city minority communities where open drug markets are concentrated. In fact, for people living in these communities, the black market has become the primary drug problem. Obviously, only a repeal of drug prohibition would dismantle the black market. Assuming the continued existence of drug prohibition, we need to explore possibilities for making retail markets less problematic - less visible, less violent, and less concentrated in poor communities.

Why are retail drug markets in the United States so visible, violent, and concentrated in poor communities? And why has the situation gotten so much worse in recent years? For most of the twentieth century, the sale of illicit drugs has taken place largely in poor inner-city communities. There people typically sold drugs not only to drug users from their own neighborhood, but to drug users who lived elsewhere, some who bought for their personal use only and some who bought in somewhat larger quantities to resell where they lived or worked.

We know very little about the prevalence of drug use in the United States prior to the 1970s, nor its distribution along racial, ethnic or class lines. What we do know is that prior to the 1970s it was primarily drug use by lower-class criminals that generated official concem. And the primary drug of concern was heroin. Mainly as a crime-reduction strategy, drug users were arrested and imprisoned or offered drug treatment, such as methadone maintenance. The police had little specific interest in the drug markets, per se. This was due, in part, to the fact that they operated in communities where vice of various sorts had long been tolerated and where residents had limited capacity to put pressure on the police. However, also important was that much of the retail drug business during this period took place off the streets, in the back rooms of shops, taverns, pool halls and the like - out of the direct view of other members of the community and out of the direct view of the police. Some drug sales took place on the streets, and street sellers were subject to arrest, but the retail markets themselves were not defined as a separate social problem.

A number of things happened to change this situation. One was the reor ganization and reassignment of drug enforcement duties following highly publicized police-corruption scandals in the early 1970s. Probably for most of the twentieth century, in most American cities, police officers had been taking money from drug dealers in exchange for not enforcing the law. The social benefit to this arrangement was that it motivated drug dealers to conduct their business fairly discreetly - in a way that did not attract the attention of others in the community. Obviously, one cannot be openly in favor of police corruption. However, there can be little doubt that, during this period, corruption played a role in softening the impact of American vice laws and helping to keep the retail drug markets under a degree of control. Following the corruption scandals, this unsanctioned "regulation system" was disrupted. Most urban police departments reorganized their drug enforcement units and discouraged regular uniformed officers from making drug arrests and, increasingly, drug enforcement became concentrated in the hands of special narcotics units. Because they were more interested in investigating high-level drug dealing than in making low-level arrests for retail sales, the overall number of drug arrests began dropping steadily in most American cities. And as the risk of arrest decreased, drug sellers began conducting business more openly.

Also during the 1970s, more people began using illegal drugs, particularly marijuana and cocaine, and this automatically created new customers for the illicit drug market. Not all new users relied on existing retail markets for their drugs and, in fact, there emerged distribution networks specifically to meet the growing demand for drugs by the middle and upper classes. At this time, even the smuggling of marijuana and cocaine into the country was, to some extent, decentralized. There were some highly organized groups involved, but existing alongside these were independent entrepreneurs who supplied drugs to a relatively small group of mid-level dealers. Even in the early 1980s, as rates of drug use were reaching an all-time high in the United States, the retail market in drugs was not defined as serious problem. Only in a few places - for example, New York's Lowe East Side - had open street markets begun attracting attention. However within a few years, there would be open street markets operating in probably a dozen New York City neighborhoods and similar markets would appear in cites across the country. Almost all of them were located in poor, run-down minority communities. In these communities, groups of young mostly minority males stood on the street selling mostly crack and powdered cocaine, but sometimes other drugs as well. They sold not only to drug users who lived in their own community, but to a growing number of drug users who lived elsewhere.

Residents of these communities became increasingly disturbed by these open drug scenes, and increasingly frightened, because they sometimes erupted into violence. Throughout the 1980s while the homicide rate in the United States remained fairly stable in the country as a whole, it increased markedly in a number of cities - mostly due to violence related to the business of selling drugs. I cannot account for all of the factors that contributed to the growth and increasingly violent character of these inner-city drug markets and will focus only on the issues related directly to drug-enforcement policy.

One of the things that happened in the United States in the early 1980s was an increased effort to reduce the supply of drugs by increasing surveillance at the borders. Despite many seizures, there is no evidence of a reduction in the overall supply of drugs. Nor is there evidence that it raised the price of drugs. However, one consequence of this effort was that it drove small-time smugglers out of the business. Before long, almost all cocaine being brought into the United States was coming through a small number of large-scale Columbia-based smuggling organizations - and they brought most of the cocaine directly into minority communities in America's inner-cities. This remains true today. As a result, this is where cocaine is always available, is relatively cheap, and is relatively easy to find.

At the same time cocaine was becoming more available in inner-city communities, it was becoming less available in others. I am not suggesting that there are some communities that were drug-free - free from either the use or sale of drugs. However, small-time dealers who sold to a small group of people out of their homes or work place became increasingly uncommon in the United States. This is because there was no drug-transaction setting which the police were willing to ignore. This is still their policy today. It does not matter whether the selling is bothersome to the community. In the major cities, there is a massive undercover effort with the goal of disrupting the sale of drugs, even when that sale takes place in a fairly unobtrusive manner. In short, there is no safe way to sell drugs in the United States. At the same time, the penalties for selling drugs have escalated. Those factors have served to drive out of the business many people who once sold drugs in a less obtrusive way to a small number of users. In the United States we have created a drug enforcement system that guarantees that drugs will be sold primarily by people who have little to lose - by young minority males. They sell drugs mainly on the streets of their own communities and their customers include not only people who live in those communities, but strangers who come there specifically for the purpose of buying drugs.

Not all drug users in the United States go to the inner-city to buy drugs. Upper class people, in particular, continue to receive their drugs through more discreet systems. However, a reason why inner-city street markets have continued to grow, even as drug use has declined, is that for many users, the inner-city is the only place they can easily find drugs. Drug sellers, of course, are motivated to market their products fairly aggressively because they want to make themselves available to strangers - to people who do not know them personally. Obviously, if drug buyers can find the drug sellers on the streets, the police can find them as well, and with very little effort they can make large numbers of arrests. When they engage in one of these operations, they are able to make several thousand arrests in just a few weeks.

No one believes that this mass arrest strategy is going to solve the drug problem in the United States. What is less understood is the extent to which it makes things worse. Every arrest destablizes the market by creating an opportunity for new people to come into the business. In poor inner city communities there is no shortage of people who are looking for this opportunity. Thus, there is constant turnover of personnel and continual competition for positions in the market. Illegal markets tend to be unstable anyway, and to regularly generate violence. This mass arrest strategy has exacerbated these tendencies. The more the police enforce the laws, the more out-of-control the markets become. The more out-of-control the markets become, the more pressure people in the community put on the police to enforce the laws.

Understanding this dynamic does not lead necessarily to rejection of a maximum-arrest strategy. In fact, a number of policy analysts in the United States support this strategy as a way to reduce the number of drug users. For them, the core justification for a mass-arrest strategy is to stop some middle-class people from going to the inner-city to buy drugs. The fact that these inner-city markets are violent is even viewed as an additional incentive for middle-class buyers to stay away. For them, a possible reduction in middle-class drug use justifies our ten-year war on low-level drug offenders - and justifies the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of people.

This is not the reason most people who live in poor inner-city communities support a mass-arrest policy. Their support is based on the hope that it will improve conditions in their neighborhoods. They hope that if the police come and get the worst drug offenders out, they won't have to confront the drug scene, day in and day out. This is the point at which our problem and your problem overlap. Open drug scenes have been growing in many European cities, interfering with what other people consider to be their legitimate right to public space. What is dramatically different about the two situations is that through purposeful non-enforcement of the law against low-level sellers who conduct their business out of public view, Europeans have managed to keep the street scene at a much smaller level. Because you allow some other ways of drug distribution to occur, without much police intervention, you manage to keep the street scene somewhatunder control. That does not mean it is entirely nonproblematic. In fact, a number of markets have emerged in areas that many people travel through on a regular basis, and there is increasing pressure on the police to take action against them.

Until now, drug-policy reformers and harm-reductionists have been able to keep their focus on issues of reducing harm to drug users. Today, there is more pressure on them to take seriously the issues of public order - and to balance the needs of drug users against the needs of other people in the community. Unfortunately, in the United States, the effort is thwarted by law enforcement policies that are aimed specifically toward reducing drug use rather than maintaining public order. Because of this, drug policy in the United States not only maximizes harrn to individual users, it maximizes harm to the broader community. Those of us who are critics of this policy are very glad to be at this conference. We are counting on your moving forward with a humane and effective drug policy that we will be able to follow.


¹ This paper is based on presentations at Bremen University in June 1993 and at the 4th Conference of the European Cities on Drug Policy, Hamburg Germany, December 1993.

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Our valuable member Lynn Zimmer has been with us since Monday, 20 December 2010.

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