By Sharese Hardaway
The Ibero-American Development Corporation plans to address the issue of open-air drug markets in Rochester.
Since receiving $184,500 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in December, IADC has partnered with Project HOPE (Healthy Outcomes through Participation, Education and Empowerment) to develop the program.
The IADC and Project Hope will begin in the Northeast quadrant of Rochester – specifically the intersection of Clifford and Conkey – which has been identified as an open-air drug market or an area where the sale of marijuana is in public view of a residential area with no secrecy or discretion involved.
“I have seen the impact of low-level drug activity on the quality of life in neighborhoods,” said Miguel Melendez, project director for the Rochester Drug Free Streets Initiative. “Our coalition believes that we must address this issue in a manner that seeks accountability from young offenders, but also furthers their opportunities to become contributing members of their respective communities. Residents feel they have a stake in addressing this issue and that is an important first step.”
Melendez is optimistic that they can eventually turn marijuana arrests into civil matters.
“We will be soliciting input from people in the neighborhood very soon. It’s a real community grassroots effort.”
Kathy Sweetland, president of the board of Partners in Restorative Initiatives said: “People in the neighborhood have made it very clear that they don’t like the behavior but they care about the young people.”
Current legislation finds that arrests, criminal prosecutions and criminal penalties are inappropriate for people who possess small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana, that is 7/8 of an ounce, has been decriminalized or made a violation punishable by a fine of $100, not jail.
When offenders are arrested for possession of marijuana, they are often released in as little as a day with nothing more than a fine, making selling marijuana a high-profit, low-consequence crime.
Since receiving the grant in December, IADC and Project Hope have hired a project coordinator and will hire an outreach worker and a restorative practices coordinator to work exclusively on the initiative. Both organizations have worked towards developing connections with the community to begin work on the two approaches to the issue.
The first approach offers an opportunity for community members to address the young offenders about their drug activities and the impact of their actions on the community. This community intervention can serve as an alternative to arrest and prosecution. The community will also connect them with educational, job training and/or employment opportunities.
“In an ideal situation we would canvas a neighborhood and do some pre-work engaging with the young men and women who are in the area of the market and invite them to a restorative process,” said Melendez. “We want to make the process as civil as possible relying on the individual, community and stakeholders to implement change rather than the criminal justice system.”
The second approach will encourage the courts to issue protective orders to those who don’t comply, preventing them from coming within a certain distance of the neighborhood. Although these approaches are still in the development stage, Melendez believes that if they are able to get the sale of marijuana declared a public nuisance, they will be able to use the nuisance laws to say they cannot be within a certain geographic boundary.
In 2004, High Point, N.C. was successful in moving dealers away from areas that had been open-air drug markets. In the target neighborhood in High Point, violent crime dropped 57 percent in four years.
New Jersey has drug offender restraining orders authorized by the state.
IADC and Project HOPE also have the support of several local organizations, city representatives, the district attorney’s office and the Rochester Police Department.
“I am grateful that IADC has been chosen as a recipient of funding for the Rochester Drug Free Streets Initiative,” said Rochester City Council President Lovely Warren. “The open air drug market that exists in some of our neighborhoods needs to be stopped. The impact that it has not only brings criminal activity to our streets but it is often coupled with violence. Our residents deserve better for their community and I am hopeful this funding will address this problem.”