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Peter Moskos -- From Amsterdam, lessons on controlling drugs

As a police officer, I responded when citizens called 911 to report drug dealing. Those calls didn't tell me much, though, because I already knew the drug corners. And what could I do? When a police car pulls up to a drug corner, the corner pulls back. Dealers, friends, addicts and lookouts walk slowly away.

I didn't chase them. If I did, they'd ditch the drugs. What would I do if I caught them? Charge them with felony running? A smart dealer doesn't hold drugs and money and guns. He's got workers for that. Besides, an anonymous call to police doesn't give the legal "probable cause" needed for a search. So I'd walk up, perhaps frisk for weapons and stand there until "my" corner was clear.

But soon enough I'd have to answer another 911 call for drugs. And when I left, the crew would reconvene. One of my partners put it succinctly: "We can't do anything. Drugs were here before I was born, and they're going to be here after I die. All they pay us to do is herd junkies."

In Amsterdam, the red-light district is the oldest and most notorious neighborhood. Two picturesque canals frame countless small pedestrian alleyways lined with legal prostitutes, bars, porn stores and coffee shops. In 2008, I visited the local police station and asked about the neighborhood's problems. I laughed when I heard that dealers of fake drugs were the biggest police issue -- but it's true. If fake-drug dealers are the worst problem in the red-light district, clearly somebody is doing something right.

In another neighborhood in Amsterdam, a man caught breaking into cars was released pending trial. The arresting officer returned to him, along with his shoelaces and personal property, his heroin and drug tools. I was amazed. The officer admitted he wasn't supposed to do that; heroin is illegal. But the officer had thought it through: "As soon as he runs out of his heroin, he'll break into another car to get money for his next hit."

For the addict, the problem was drugs. But for the police officer, the problem was crime. It made no sense, the officer told me, to take the drugs and hasten the addict's next crime. The addict was not a criminal when he had drugs (beyond possessing them); he was a criminal when he didn't have drugs.

I asked the officer if giving drugs to addicts sends the wrong message. He said his message was simple: "Stop breaking into cars!" With a subtle smirk in my direction, he added, "It is very strange that a country as violent as America is so obsessed with jailing drug addicts." Indeed, Dutch policymakers plan, regulate, fix and pragmatically debate harms and benefits. Police in the Netherlands are not involved in a drug war; they're too busy doing real police work.

The results are telling. In America, 37 percent of adults have tried marijuana; in the Netherlands the figure is 17 percent. Heroin usage rates are three times higher in the United States than in the Netherlands. Crystal meth, so destructive here, is almost nonexistent there. By any standard -- drug usage rates, addiction, homicides, incarceration and dollars spent -- America has lost the war on drugs.

And just as escalating the drug war over the past three decades hasn't caused a decrease in supply and demand, there's no good reason to believe that regulating drugs instead of outlawing them would cause an increase. If it did, why are drug usage rates in the Netherlands lower? People start and stop taking drugs for many different reasons, but the law seems to be pretty low on the list. Ask yourself: Would you shoot up tomorrow if heroin were legal?

Nobody wants a drug free-for-all; but in fact, that's what we already have in many communities. What we need is regulation. Distribution without regulation equals criminals and chaos -- what police see every day on some of our streets. People will buy drugs because they want to get high, and the question is only how and where they will buy them.

History provides some lessons. The 21st Amendment ending Prohibition did not force anybody to drink or any city to license saloons. In 1933, after the failure to ban alcohol, the feds simply got out of the game. Today, they should do the same -- and last week the Justice Department took a very small step in the right direction.

Without federal control, states, cities and counties would be free to bar or regulate drugs as they saw fit. Just as with alcohol and tobacco regulation, one size does not fit all; we would see local solutions to local problems.

Even without federal pressure, most states and cities would undoubtedly start by maintaining the status quo against drugs. That's fine. In these cases, police with or without federal assistance should focus on reducing violence by pushing the drug trade off the streets. An effort to shift the nature of the illegal trade is different than declaring a war on drugs.

Regulating and controlling distribution is far more effective at clearing the corners of drug dealers than any SWAT crackdown. One can easily imagine that in some cities -- San Francisco, Portland and Seattle come to mind -- alternatives to arrest and incarceration could be tried. They could learn from the experience of the Dutch, and we could all learn from their successes and failures.

Regulation is hard work, but it's not a war. And it sure beats herding junkies.

Peter Moskos is an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the author of "Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore's Eastern District."


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