Local heroes lead the war on drugs

Fighting narcotics: As the UN deliberates, part of New York has an approach based on the power of the family
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The Independent Online
THE Bodega De La Familia is barely a mile away from the United Nations headquarters in New York, where this week world leaders are meeting to ponder the scourge of drug abuse and trafficking. In English, it is the "Family Grocery" and some of the UN delegates might want to pay it a visit.

With its startling front window, decorated with a primary-colour mural in Latino themes of children and music, this place is in the heart of Manhattan's Lower East Side - "Loisaida" to Spanish speakers - where gang violence, intimidation and murder still flourish on the lucrative fuel of cocaine and heroin.

It was, until a short time ago, a bodega like so many others in the neighbourhood which traded in drugs under the counter. In 1995 it was the scene of a police shoot-out which left one person dead and a police officer paralysed.

But today, the Bodega is a symbol of a new approach to tackling drugs, and drugs consumption which is the philosophical opposite to punishment, prosecution and imprisonment. It is, in fact, at the battle front in a war where the strategy is not punishment but prevention, treatment and education.

The Bodega's specific mission may seem obvious, but it is alone across all of the United States in practising it. It is to try to help users who have already fallen foul of the criminal justice system, and probably spent time in prison, by offering support and counselling to them and to all of their family.

With as many as 50 families enrolled in its programmes at one time, the Bodega takes two, overlapping, views. Families of users are victims, too. Grandsons steal from grandmothers to buy heroin. Husbands beat wives. Children lose love and even the roofs over their heads. Two-thirds of those coming to La Bodega live in public housing, from which, under city rules, anyone found using is instantly evicted.

Second, those families, if they can be given help by places like La Bodega, can help the user to overcome their habit, to get back on the straight and narrow and, hopefully, stay out of trouble and prison. One-quarter of those behind bars in the US are there for drugs-related crimes only and nothing else.

"To me, the fight against drugs is not about border patrols," said La Bodega's director, Carol Shapiro, who will address a panel at the UN summit tomorrow. "We're demonising the user, and by extension all of their families. But the families are a resource and we are trying to use that.

"Conventional drug treatment pulls people away from from their existing supports. What we believe is that there are lot of strengths in people's families. Our role is to extract and reinforce those strengths from the families and not to try to demonise and exacerbate the problem."

Ms Shapiro is far from alone in her feelings. Leading those who will try this week to impress on delegates at the UN the need for a revolutionary approach to breaking the drugs cycle will be the New York-based Lindsmith Center. The foundation, which is funded by the philanthropist and financier George Soros, advocates approaches such as needle-exchange programmes to save drug users from infecting themselves, or others, with HIV.

To drive home its point, the Lindsmith yesterday bought double-page spreads in newspapers such as the New York Times featuring a letter signed by a array of concerned drugs-policy activists, arguing that the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself, precisely because of its focus largely on criminalisation and punishment.

With signatories who include British MPs, professors, religious leaders and the former head of the Scotland Yard Drug Squad, Edward Ellison, the letter stated: "Scarce resources better expended on health, education and economic development are squandered on ever more expensive interdiction efforts."

There can be few better test-beds for a new approach than the Lower East Side, where the battles between gangs for supremacy over lucrative territory spills almost daily onto the streets and the newspaper headlines. In a year, the New York police have brought charges against 90 members of gangs such as the now notorious Dead Man Walking gang.

Two weeks ago, the police successfully split open one of the most violent gangs, the Cut Throat Crew. The breakthrough sprung from an investigation into two of its members charged with cornering a woman for non-payment for drugs. They allegedly attempted to rape Evelene Santana, before pushing her off from a roof to her death.

While many who are dependent on drugs have been in the overwhelmingly Hispanic neighbourhood for generations, some of the area's customers are not just outsiders, but also famous. A week ago, Scott Weiland, former lead singer of the Stone Temple Pilots, an "alternative" rock band, was arrested coming out of the public housing units in possession of heroin.

The Dead Man Walking gang, which sold own-brand concoctions such as "Red Rum", briefly achieved notoriety in 1996 when a back-up keyboard player from the group "Smashing Pumpkins", Jonathan Melvoin, died from a overdose of heroin that it had supplied to him.

One who has been helped by La Bodega is Santos Poggi, who was recently incarcerated for drugs crimes for a year in an upstate penitentiary. He suffered, but so did his wife, Melissa, who tried to visit him regularly. "You try not to show your anger, because I knew he was going through a lot," Melissa said at the Bodega. "Just because you are not behind bars, you still feel like you're serving the sentence with him."

Santos and Melissa, however, have found sanctuary and peace at La Bodega. For now, Santos is clean and out of trouble with his parole officer. "All week, I go through so much and I look forward to coming here," he explained. "Otherwise, I'd stay home and go crazy because no one is trying to listen to my problems".

t The convicted drugs smuggler Howard Marks, the Labour MP Paul Flynn and Colin Paisley, a former heroin addict and former mayor, were among those protesting outside the Foreign Office in Whitehall yesterday against the UN conference on drugs in New York. The three-day session, starting today, will be attended by John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister, and the UK drugs tsar Keith Hellawell. Mr Marks, a campaigner for the legalisation of cannabis, said the conference would not do anything to stop the gangsters involved in the illegal drugs industry.