Last week the topic of modernizing drug law enforcement took center stage at UN Headquarters when the Permanent Missions of Switzerland and the Czech Republic to the United Nations co-sponsored a program with International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), Harm Reduction Coalition, the International Security Research Department at Chatham House and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) entitled “Modernizing Drug Law Enforcement”.  Featuring a distinguished international panel of scholars and law enforcement personnel including Professor David Bewley-Taylor (Swansea University, UK), Dr. Vanda Felbab-Brown (Brookings Institute, Washington D.C.) and Interim Chief of Police Jim Pugel (Seattle), the event aimed to promote debate around the current challenges to drug law enforcement, the concept of managing drug markets to minimize harm and the implications for future law enforcement strategies.  The program was moderated by Heather Haase of IDPC and Harm Reduction Coalition and was well-attended by the UN community and civil society.

The first speaker was Professor David Bewley Taylor, who gave an overview of the Modernizing Drug Law Enforcement project and its key goals and objectives. Providing background for the project, he explained that for decades drug law enforcement has focused on reducing the size of the illicit drug markets by seeking to eradicate drug production, distribution and retail supply, but that these methods have failed in significantly decreasing supply and demand in consumer drug markets. As a result there is a need for an adjustment in drug law enforcement strategies:  the new challenge is to manage drug markets policing strategy in a way that will minimize harm to communities. 

Minimizing harm is particularly relevant in the case of drug-related violence.  Discussing the relationship between violence and drug markets, Professor Bewley-Taylor explained how actions of law enforcement can affect – and even cause – drug drug-related violence. He noted the growing recognition that law enforcement powers can be used to constructively shape these markets and discussed several underlying concepts, especially focusing on the need to change indicators to “metrics that matter” – from metrics concerned with numbers of drug-related arrests, seizures, or hectares of crops eradicated to measures relating to public health and community well-being.  He also discussed the need for selective targeting of law enforcement efforts on areas where the most impact on harms can be achieved, and concentrating law enforcement action on the basis of the level of harm caused by individuals in the market (rather than focusing on the easiest to catch).

Professor Bewley-Taylor then presented the core objectives of the program, supported by a series of publications as well as network development and seminars. He ended by expressing the hope that “we will move into the High Level Review in Vienna and the 2016 drugs UNGASS with a different view about policing drug law enforcement”.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, Professor David Bewley-Taylor, Interim Chief of Police Jim Pugel and Heather Haase.

Next, Dr. Vanda Felbab-Brown discussed her report “Focused deterrence, selective targeting, drug trafficking and organized crime: Concepts and practicalities” (as well as various concepts addressed in the other reports in the series), focusing on enforcement efforts in the context of global drug markets.  Giving an overview of the ever changing global drug market, she noted that while each country is different and “one size does not fit all” in the context of law enforcement responses to each situation, there were some things that are generally true across the board. These included that we not only cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem but we also cannot “eradicate” our way out:  eradication efforts have not had a lasting effect on markets due to the “balloon effect”.  The drug markets pose very severe threats to states and societies – including violence – and therefore it is critical how these markets are managed.  She discussed traditional law enforcement methods (exported from the US, particularly NY) such as zero tolerance and high-value targeting (going after heads of criminal organizations) that have been ineffective overall.  She then suggested an alternative:  while law enforcement has traditionally focused on suppression on the flow of drugs, it makes more sense to focus on suppressing the violence instead. Drug markets lend themselves to this prioritization because drugs are an infinitely renewable resource; thus it would be more effective to focus on the harms associated with the flows, rather than on the flows per se.  Another method is to identify the greatest threat generated by a particular drug market and apply selective targeting and focused deterrence methods to signal to criminals that certain behaviors are less tolerated than others (e.g., trafficking will be punished, but violence will be punished far more). Also, middle-level targeting is more effective than high-value targeting, as it is really the middle layer that allows an organization to operate, while in many cases high-value targeting disrupts an organization leading to more violence but no change in conditions.

Finally, she suggested that the goal of law enforcement in connection with drug markets should be to shape behavior of criminals to pose the least threat to societies.  She discussed certain aspects connected with this goal, including reducing, to the lowest level possible, the violence of criminals, their capacity to corrupt societies, and their interaction with society.  She pointed out that these goals might be achieved not just through deploying law enforcement approaches but with other policies including socioeconomic approaches to dealing with criminality.

The last speaker was Interim Chief Jim Pugel, acting chief of the Seattle Police Department. Chief Pugel described a program that puts many these concepts into practice:  the Law Enforcement Diversion Program, or “LEAD”, operating in Seattle.  The LEAD program is a comprehensive initiative championed by government and non-government, multi-agency and community partnership to divert non-violent, low level drug dealers away from jail and toward a productive life while making residents feel safer and saving money. 

First he discussed some of the challenges law enforcement faced in Seattle that gave rise to the program, including business and resident complaints of street level drug dealing in the downtown area, pressure to arrest low level drug dealers, many of whom were ‘subsistence’ sellers, and concerns of disproportionate impact of these arrests on racial minorities – as the result of which the police department and prosecutors were sued.  In the end, they realized that the system was very expensive for everyone involved, and did not produce results.  To come up with a better solution for the community, numerous stakeholders, including ACLU, public defenders, police, prosecutors, elected officials, local businesses and community, came together, and, over an 18-month period, met to define the issues and agree on moving forward. The result was the LEAD program.  

Chief Pugel then discussed the program including eligibility for LEAD (involving factors such as amount of drugs sold or possessed, whether the person is amenable to diversion, and whether the person exploits others or has committed a violent crime) and how it works:  at the point of arrest, the officer offers the choice of going to jail or going to see a case manager.  The case manager from a service provider performs an initial assessment at the police station, and within a week a 3-hour assessment is done. The program tries to meet the person’s needs on a holistic basis whether that entails treatment, housing or other services. Any treatment is harm reduction based, and a person can be in the program indefinitely.

A brief audience Q&A session followed the panel speaker presentations in which the discussion circled back to examples of “metrics that matter” – metrics based on community health, such as HIV/AIDS rates, drug-related violence (particularly homicides), and the level of penetration of criminal groups into political processes were cited as examples. The point was made that the difficulty of measuring “smarter” metrics should not deter us from using them – and that there were many indices already available such as the Human Developments Index.

The following day, Professor Bewley-Taylor and Dr. Felbab-Brown, along with Virginia Comolli, Research Associate for Transnational Threats at IISS, presented a similar program to an audience of US officials, security experts, members of the drug policy reform community and embassy personnel at IISS-US in Washington, DC.  During his stay in New York, Chief Pugel also made a presentation on the LEAD program to a group of state prosecutors, district attorneys, public health professionals and law enforcement personnel from all over New York State in a meeting held by Drug Policy Alliance and Open Society Foundations, at OSF’s offices in New York City.

The full audio of Modernizing Drug Law Enforcement at UN Headquarters is available here, (and below) and a video of the IISS-US event can be viewed here

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