Monday, September 30, 2013

Enforcement of laws part of a comprehensive drug prevention strategy

Today’s Seattle Times article, “Downtown street offenses going unpunished”, reflects what Prevention WINS members have been struggling with since 2007.  While the article focuses on downtown crime, a similar situation exists in NE Seattle when it comes to the enforcement of underage drinking and marijuana use laws. 

The Times’ articles starts:

Tova Hornung was walking past Westlake Park downtown this summer when she saw a large group of young people with pit bulls and skateboards, smoking pot. One young man started swinging his skateboard as she passed, threatening another when he wouldn’t share his dope.

Hornung, who lives in Seattle, approached a group of bicycle police officers nearby and asked, “Why aren’t you doing anything? Isn’t there a law?”

“No,” she said she was told by the officers. “There’s nothing we can do.”

Underage marijuana use is illegal.  Smoking pot in public is also illegal.  At the very least, warnings could have been given, in line with stated police policy.  (Police are to give people who use pot in view of the public a warning first and, if the warning is not heeded, tickets are to be given.)  But, then again, marijuana remains the lowest priority for police enforcement in Seattle. 

Enforcement of minor in possession laws
In 2007, Prevention WINS surveyed North Precinct police about underage drinking and law enforcement.  The survey results indicated that while police think underage drinking is a problem in NE Seattle, they felt that “top law enforcement officials” were not very supportive of the enforcement of underage alcohol violations.  They cited the apparent lack of consequences and follow-up to their efforts as a primary reason for not enforcing underage drinking laws more vigorously.* 

In the Times’ article, Mayor McGinn seems to support the police point of view:

“I think what has been going on, quite bluntly, our officers are not going to write tickets if there’s no ultimate consequence for writing the ticket. That’s just not a good use of their time,” McGinn said when asked what direction he gives police about law enforcement downtown.

Community laws & norms favorable to drug use
In August, I blogged about the significant increase in the adolescent substance abuse risk factor “community laws and norms favorable toward drug use”.  One of the main components of that risk factor is the non-enforcement of laws.  It turns out that this may not be unique to NE Seattle.  

A multi-faceted prevention strategy is most effective
In the Times' article, the Mayor notes that previous "enforcement-only" approaches have not worked.  Youth substance abuse prevention advocates know this well.  Multiple solutions that are implemented at the same time are the most effective way to prevent a community problem. Every community member has a role to play.

In NE Seattle, Prevention WINS coalition members and associated organizations are doing multiple things to prevent underage drinking and marijuana use.  Evidence-based substance abuse prevention programs for students and parents are implemented at Eckstein Middle School.  Middle and high school students conduct prevention activities in their schools.  A social marketing campaign urging parents to monitor their teenage children started two years ago.  But as community laws and norms become more favorable toward drug use, community institutions such as Seattle Police, City Council, Mayor, and City Attorney need to step up to the plate and play their role, as well. 

* Please note that when police cite underage consumers with minor in possession violations, kids are not put in jail.  In Seattle they are not even brought to the police precinct.  Minor in possession cases are referred to a county diversion program.  No criminal record is established.  In fact, the criminal justice system is one important way that youth who need help with drug problems are linked to the help they need.

Update: According to an October 4 Seattle Times article, minors using and dealing marijuana at Westlake Park is an ongoing problem.

In an August letter sent to Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and members of the Seattle City Council, William Mackay — a resident of the Seaboard Building and president of Friends of Westlake — urged officials to permanently assign police officers to Westlake Park, citing the alleged attack on the security guard. According to his letter, a gang of 20 to 30 young people have taken over the southern section of the park, where they remain all day with their dogs and possessions, selling and smoking marijuana.

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