Balking at Law Enforcement

Center forum exposes unease with crystal busts

Representatives from state and federal law enforcement agencies received a chilly reception during a town meeting on crystal meth and the law.

“I would like to see the gay community say ‘No, we will solve our own problem,’” said one audience member during the second hour of the March 30 event held at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center. “We don’t need you.”

Sitting on the panel were David Esseks, chief of the Narcotics Unit in the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Rhonda Ferdinand, a prosecutor with the Office of Special Narcotics, a state agency, and Christopher Giovino, a senior special agent with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

The event was organized by Dan Carlson and Bruce Kellerhouse who have produced two other town meetings, one last year and another earlier this year, on HIV, crystal meth, and gay men.

This latest forum came after the U.S. attorney’s office announced the arrests of eight alleged meth dealers on February 19 and a combined DEA-New York City police task force raided the Sound Factory nightclub in midtown Manhattan on March 8.

The law enforcement panelists signed on, in part, to counter the perception that the gay community is being targeted and, during the evening’s first hour, they described their efforts against crystal meth.

“What we do is target large scale drug deals and drug dealers,” said Giovino who heads the New York Drug Enforcement Strike Force, a group of 230 state, local, and federal officers that is partially funded by the DEA. “You can expect my guys and my gals to go after the biggest drug dealers in town… If they happen to be gay or lesbian, they will be arrested.”

Giovino said the DEA has seen a 31 percent increase in crystal arrests in New York over the past year, though he could not say what the actual arrest numbers were.

Esseks said he joined the panel, in part, to respond to charges that government was not addressing the growing crystal problem in New York City’s gay community. He said his office handled 11 meth cases in 2002 and over the past six months it has handled more than 30 cases.

“We’re doing something about it,” Esseks said.

He also detailed the onerous mandatory minimum sentences that meth dealers can face––ten years for selling 50 grams and five years for selling five grams. A dealer need not sell those amounts at one time. Those minimums can apply when one person has sold a total of 50 or five grams over an extended period of time.

“We’re enforcing them against people who are real drug dealers who are dealing poison,” Esseks said.

While the DEA and the U.S. attorney’s office focus on large producers and distributors, Esseks said they might arrest crystal meth users.

“I can’t and won’t rule out some degree of user-focused prosecutions,” he said. “We haven’t done any user-focused prosecutions in this area… All I’m prepared to say is it is something we have not ruled out.”

Giovino said the last time the DEA was involved in arresting users of any drug was 1986.

Ferdinand, whose office prosecutes felony drug offenses throughout New York City, described state sentences that are as daunting as the federal minimums, though she said that state law allowed her to divert some users who deal into drug treatment.

“If you come in and you have an addiction you can get treatment,” she said.

Someone who possesses two ounces or more of crystal or who sells a half ounce could face a minimum sentence of three years to life and a maximum sentence of eight-and-one-third-years to life in state prison.

Special Narcotics has seen a tiny increase in its meth cases going from two indictments in 2001 and two in 2002 to three in 2003. Some of those defendants have been gay.

Panelist Isabelle A. Kirshner, a criminal defense attorney who has represented gay men charged with meth dealing, said the mandatory federal sentences forced men who have been arrested to inform on their friends.

“Cooperation is the cornerstone of the federal system,” she said. “It’s the only way to get around mandatory sentences.”

The fifth panelist was Allan Clear, executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition, who opposed the law enforcement action.

“It doesn’t work,” he said. “I believe that the solutions lie within the gay community. The gay community has to change community norms… When law enforcement comes in, it has a negative health impact.”

Despite the recent increases, meth investigations and prosecutions remain a small part of the work of these agencies. Part of the law enforcement rationale for pursuing crystal is to prevent it from becoming a widespread problem in New York.

“What we’re trying to do here is to get ahead of it,” Giovino said.

The audience of roughly 150 people at the March 30 forum was not comforted by that. While their comments were respectful, no one praised the law enforcement representatives. On the contrary, the audience was closer to Clear’s views on the usefulness of police and prosecutors in addressing crystal.

Ronald Johnson, associate executive director at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), said the panel illustrated the “fundamental fallacy” that drug use could be addressed by the law.

“Addiction is a health problem,” he said. “It is not a law enforcement problem.”

Johnson charged that law enforcement was draining resources from agencies that address addiction with treatment.

The law enforcement panelists said their efforts complemented treatment and that they were also defending the gay community from dealers who are not necessarily gay.

“There are predators who are targeting your community and you are telling us that you don’t need us,” Ferdinand said.

That drew calls of “that’s right” from the audience.

The panel was moderated by Paul Schindler, the editor-in-chief of Gay City News.

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