A Crusading DA and Drug Reform

Rather than focus on the whipping that Congressional Democrats took on the pro-war resolution in Washington, let us go instead upstate to Albany and look at a Democrat who fought back when set upon by the right-wing attack dogs.

David Soares, the Albany district attorney, attracted attention when he became the first law enforcement official in decades to win an election by charging that his opponent was too tough on crime. He ran against the Rockefeller drug laws. The incumbent, an old-line Albany Democrat, Paul Clyne, had a reputation as a tough DA. But he lost in the primary to a coalition of blacks, gays, reformers, and the Working Families Party. At 35, Soares, a former junior member of the DA’s office, was given no chance of winning, but he carried the primary with a whooping 62 percent of the vote.

Since he was elected in 2004, he’s had run-ins with the police over investigations of excessive force and raised anxiety levels when he started an official corruption unit, but these brouhahas were minor compared to the one that started after his a speech at a harm reduction conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. Harm reduction is the name for the public health approach to drug control. It’s most famous programs in New York City are needle exchanges which increase the supply of sterile needles and reduced needle sharing to stanch the spread of the AIDS virus.

Harm reduction is a general rubric that describes a multitude of approaches to drug use and abuse and the spread of disease. Cleans needle exchanges and over-the-counter sale of sterile needles give injection drug users access to safe equipment. Club drugs and dancing lead to dehydration and heat stroke, and in response some European countries require that nightclubs have an ample and free supply of water. Drug overdose deaths are preventable if treated promptly, so in Australian cities needle injectors are taught to identify the signs of an overdose and often given a medicine that restores normal breathing. Drug users and ambulance drivers met in an effort to encourage needle users and their friends to promptly call 911.

In the United States, where harm reduction is often ridiculed and even condemned as encouraging, in various contexts, illegal behavior and risky sex, a potent new combination of heroin has led to hundreds of deaths. Conferences like the one in Vancouver are invaluable to policymakers because there they have a chance to learn about innovations in public health and drug control policy.

By going to Vancouver, Soares was keeping a campaign promise. The International Conference on the Reduction of Drug Related Harm is held every two years, and brings together academics, activists, and government officials from all over the world. There Soares met government officials and experts who told him how polices worked in practice as opposed to the way they are caricatured by critics. The conference in turn honored Soares by having him address a plenary session.

The speech unleashed the wrath of the right wing. Playing on the similarity of the last names of Soares and George Soros, the wealthy investor who is the biggest contributor to drug reform causes and a strident crusader against President George W. Bush, the New York Post went on the offensive with its May 4 headline: $OROS’ D.A. DRUG OUTRAGE—UPSTATER RIPS U.S. POLICY AS A RACKET.

Soares’ speech included a commonplace assertion among drug reformers—that the drug war continues “because it provides law enforcement officials with lucrative jobs.” The Post wouldn’t let go of that statement and the Albany County sheriff and the city’s mayor and police chief reacted in fury. Sheriff James Campbell said, “All the police agencies work together. It’s not I, it’s we,” and asked if Soares thought “the law enforcement agencies weren’t going to respond to his statements?”

Soares wisely chose not to fight over the issue of “lucrative jobs,” and quickly apologized for that statement. But this isn’t the tale of a wimp, but of a fighter. Soares didn’t go away, he had a point to make, and he was not going to let the focus fall on the apology.

Instead, he slammed home his most basic point—Albany can’t stop drug abuse by arresting people with $20 bags of dope. And then he re-upped the ante by charging, “We are dealing with people whose hate for me is vicious. And I will not let them drive me out.” And he turned a hearing where he was supposed to be censured into a pep rally, filled with banner-wielding citizens and politicians who back his call for the end of Rockefeller drugs laws.

On TV, the battle clearly pitted those aiming to end draconian drug laws against opponents of reform. Soares won the war of the message.

In a telephone interview, the DA exuded a sense of calm. The dust-up exposed the weakness of the opposition to reform—their numbers aren’t growing.

“My critics in Albany County are the same critics who were there when I announced my candidacy,” he said. “They have stayed in the background and have worked hard to thwart my reforms.”

“It’s the same drill, in essence, that plays out any time a public official or public figure is candid enough [to make] his or her critics uncomfortable,” concluded the Times Union, in writing that Soares had the better of the debate’s substance. “The opposition jumps on a few select words and, perhaps, some of the more inelegant or less politically nuanced phrases.”

Soares’ opponents failed, in the view of the Times Union, because they can’t satisfactorily answer the bottom line question: How have “draconian laws” stopped drug abuse? The primary result of get-tough policies has been the “disproportionate” imposition of “excessively long prison sentences” on blacks and Latinos. Drug abuse and “all the problems that come with it” continue to fester.

By fighting back, this reformer flummoxed those on the attack who often bedevil Democrats. The failure to fight too often leaves Democrats, on the full panoply of issues, isolated and alienated from the public—which is almost the very prescription for permanent minority party status. Soares came out of his battle with renewed self-confidence and vigor and is an example to be emulated.