Sunday, June 17, 2007


Return to the scene of heartbreak, Pt. II

Though I spent a lot of my life in Grosse Pointe (which was a wonderful place to grow up), I did live in Detroit proper both as a child and an adult. I lived there when the riots rose out of the West side, I smelled the stench of burning oil, saw the National Guard take over my town in tanks and jeeps. I lived there when the jobs left the first time, when the black license plates with the white numbers went south to Houston and they said “Last one in Detroit, turn out the lights.” And I lived there when crack destroyed much of what was left, snatching away what little remained in some neighborhoods, and leaving entire blocks with nothing but empty lots and burned-out churches.

Given that much of my work has been to change the harsh sentencing laws for crack, you might think it odd that I see crack as part of what blasted Detroit into pieces. But that is exactly why I do care about that issue. My problem with the narcotics laws isn’t that I’m ok with drugs or want to legalize them or am under the delusion that treatment works very often or kid myself that narcotics trafficking is a victimless crime. My problem is that by punishing crack so much more harshly than powder, we are ignoring the economics of the drug trade, and changing the economics is the only way to make crack more expensive (which is the best realistic goal that interdiction can have).

Crack is made on a stovetop by the unskilled labor of the drug networks; they are the minimum-wage people, and so easily replaced it is almost effortless. We can sweep them up again and again and fill the prisons to the top, and it won’t make any difference at all, and that is just what we have done. Those sentences create an incentive for law enforcement, too—they can say “Look what we have done!” Which, in the end, is much easier than going after the hard-to-get people that really matter, the ones who know how to finance and ship and distribute a product. What I want, a lot, is to fill the prisons with them. It won’t unbreak my heart, but it might be a little bit of of the change that our world cries out for.

But what's true for the small fry is also true for the lunkers, isn't it, albeit on a different scale? If kingpins or middle management get taken down, won't someone step into their place, too? Sure, there's fewer people with the ability to fill those roles, but there's also fewer of those roles to fill in the first place.

As you know, this isn't the first time that prohibition has wrought havoc on Detroit. I submit that that the problem isn't a failure of will or foolhardy priorities on the part of law enforcement, but rather the prohibition itself. (Hardly an original opinion, I know.)

By the by, HBO's series "The Wire" (aka, The Best Show on Television) touches on these same drugs-and-urban-decay issues, but in Baltimore.

Well, no, I don't think there a bunch of guys on the streets of Detroit who know how to run a sophisticated business operation. Some develop, sure, but my point has never been that you will get rid of all the drugs-- just disrupt the trade and drive up the price. That's the best we can hope for. And you can disrupt the trade by taking out the skill guys, not the easily replaced mopes.
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