Is the President’s new drug policy just more of the same?

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The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy’s new Drug Control Strategy for 2012 recommends roughly equal spending on treatment and punishment.

It allocated $10.1 billion on prevention and treatment; $9.4 billion on law enforcement and incarceration; $3.6 billion on drug interdiction; and $2.1 billion on international programs.

Meghan Ralston of Drug Policy Alliance, a national organization advocating marijuana legalization and de-criminalization of other lesser drugs and amounts, was underwhelmed. “It’s essentially been the exact same allocation of funds, the exact same approach, since the days of Nixon. So it’s really just the same old, same old.”

Ralston thinks Gil Kerlikowske, the President’s drug czar and head of the ONDCP, and the Administration are trying to do the right thing, but they’re going about it from the wrong direction.

“The policies that are in place at the federal level, and the rhetoric that’s happening at a federal level, is really inconsistent and out of touch with what a lot of the American people want and what a lot of American people need and really the direction the rest of the country is headed.”

With polls showing overwhelming support for medical marijuana, Ralston said, there’s a big disconnect between federal policy and popular will.

Kerlikowske has been touring the country to tout the new strategy. He held a news conference at Los Angeles’ First African Methodist Episcopal Church, in the West Adams district, to highlight a portion of the community-based approaches the administration thinks may be more effective at the local level. The Drug Free Communities Support Program offers small grants to community groups that address youth substance abuse.

Standing in the church’s sunny garden, Kerlikowske said local faith organizations reach more people regularly than he could possibly reach himself. “These are the folks that touch people every single day.”

He also said the new strategy will take into account the rising scourge of prescription drug abuse. “It was just a few years ago that no one talked about the problem of prescription drugs. Now prescription drugs take more lives in this country than heroin and cocaine overdoses combined.”

Whether the new strategy will be any more effective in combatting this and other forms of drug abuse than prior attempts remains to be seen.

Additional information can be found here.

South LA pocket park gets a facelift

imageHoover Recreation Center is a small little pocket park situated at the busy intersection of 25th and Hoover. It’s in the bustling working-class neighborhood of South Adams, which nestles up against the University of Southern California.

The fact that the park exists is unusual—older areas like South Adams in dense cities like LA typically don’t have enough parks and green spaces. City Councilman Ed Reyes supported the upgrade at Hoover:

“In this pocket [of LA], we’re talking about 40,000 people per square mile. Children are playing on the fire escapes, in the hallways of their apartments. The moms and dads are worried about where their children will be.”

These small parks function as essential breathing spaces in crowded urban lives.

But in a densely populated area like South Adams, it’s hard to carve out more space for anything. With local and state governments making massive cutbacks, it’s hard to find money to improve anything. But where there’s a will, there’s a way, and small things can be done that add up to large improvements.

Said LA Parks Commissioner Barry Sanders, “We can never add enough acreage. So what you can do when you can’t add enough is you try to make what you’ve got count.”

Jill Werner, of the Werner Family Foundation, is a member of the Parks Commission. She was instrumental in getting a $150,000 grant from the Foundation for improvements at Hoover. That grant, in part, helped fund a study conducted by the University of Southern California’s Graduate Program in Landscape Architecture, which looked at ways in which the park could be better organized. USC professor Robert Harris, who supervised the study, said the park was underutilized because it wasn’t clear how to divvy up the space between different activities.

Hoover Recreation Center benefits from a $150,000 grant from the Werner Family Foundation to install walking trails, exercise equipment, new grass, and a general tidying.

“The people playing soccer, the balls always came into the place where the kids were playing. The picnic space was being occupied by people doing all kinds of things.”

A walking trail was added with exercise equipment installed at various points along the path. The trail gives valuable space for walking and exercising, and it creates a clear visual separation between spaces for different uses.

For instance, said Harris, “The path itself separates the picnic area enough that it will seem to everyone that that’s what that’s for.”

The new improvements, which also include freshly planted grass in the lawn areas, are a hit with the neighborhood. While the dedication ceremony was going on, several children and their families were playing in the playground and open spaces.

Local resident Juany Molina said she’s lived in the neighborhood for 42 years.

“I am 67 years old…now we have a place where we can come do exercises. Before we didn’t have anything like exercise machines, and there were many people drinking—we disapproved. But now I think when more people are coming, it’s going to be different. Nicer.”

The Parks Commission has plans to add 50 more pocket parks in areas, like South Adams, that have a lot of people and not enough parks.

City redistricting battle may head to the courts

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After an eight-hour meeting, The Los Angeles City Council Redistricting Commission (LACCRC) approved a “Final Map Recommendation” just before midnight Wednesday on a vote of 16 to 5.

Los Angeles City Council Districts 8 and 9 will suffer dramatic changes to their borders under the newly approved district maps. Both will lose neighborhoods that are the economic engines of their districts.

CD-9, Jan Perry’s district, will lose its downtown constituency. CD-8, Parks’ district, will lose Leimert Park, a hub of black culture and commerce, and Baldwin Hills, a primarily black, middle-class neighborhood.

Without these neighborhoods, Districts 8 and 9 will be among the poorest of all LA City Council districts.

Also, the University of Southern California will be moved from CD-8 to CD-9. Why? Councilman Parks said he couldn’t identify a single community member who asked for that change, saying, “What I thought was amazing was that no one had come to the commission from either the 8th or the 9th district that live in that area or stakeholders saying that that should be moved”.

In fact, Parks accused the commission of drawing the maps before getting any community input:

“The real meetings were in secret. They just kind of placated the public by showing up and discussing or letting people talk.”

The Redistricting Commission’s website says there would be “at least 20 public hearings.” So far, 15 have been held during January and February of this year. Members of the public have also been able to submit their own maps via a form on the Commission’s website.

But the maps that were produced at the beginning of the redistricting process have not changed very much since then and now, despite citizen submissions and the public meetings. In Parks’ district, there were three meetings.

“They decided the maps were worthy of more weight than the public comment that was overwhelming in three meetings that said ‘Leave the 8th District alone.’”

Both Parks and Perry have said they think it’s payback because they didn’t support 10th Council District Representive Herb Wesson’s bid for City Council President. Said Parks, when asked about the allegation, “I”m too old to be punished. The issue is they’re punishing people that don’t need to be punished. So if their goal is to punish the community…These lines will be in place for 10 years. They’ve created two districts, the 8th and the 9th, with no resources and a bunch of poor people.”

Wesson, who won his bid for City Council President, stated in a recent LA Times article, that he has no personal motives for the redistricting moves. His press secretary, Edward Johnson, said he had no official comment.

Parks and Perry have pledged to file a lawsuit under the Voting Rights Act. The lawsuit will allege that the redistricting process failed to adequately incorporated community input. It will also claim that the districts are being re-drawn along racial lines, which is prohibited under the VRA unless studies are conducted which prove that voting is so strictly polarized by race that elections are not competitive.

The Redistricting Commisson will hold another meeting on February 29, 2012. Final approval is slated for March 1.

The new map is expected to be available for viewing on the LACCRC website by February 27th.

Woman denied humanitarian visa to visit dying sister

imageLopez is 55 years old and lives in Mexico. Her older sister is dying of cancer here in the United States. Her request for a humanitarian visa to cross the border was denied at the US Consulate in Tijuana. Local immigrant rights activist Juan Jose Gutierrez held a press conference today at the Federal Building in downtown LA to bring attention to Lopez’s plight. When asked why her visa request was turned down, he said, “They never tell you what’s insufficient. They simply tell you that whatever evidence in this case she presented, in the judgement of the adjudicator—the consular officer—was insufficient”.

Lopez took letters from doctors proving that her sister is dying. She brought papers proving she owns a home in Mexico. She even brought papers from a Mexican doctor stating that her own son, 23 years old, is also dying of cancer, and that she would return to Mexico quickly to take care of him. It still wasn’t enough.

Local immigration attorney Paul Cass explained what the consulate might be looking for:

“…the Department of State—which runs the consulates and immigration service—is that all persons seeking to enter the United States are deemed to be intending to immigrate unless they can satisfy the appropriate officials that they don’t intend to immigrate… the rule of thumb is they have to show substantial ties to their home country such that they are more likely to return after a brief stay”.

Cass says if Lopez isn’t employed, that could be a red flag to the State Department.

Gutierrez says Congressman Howard Berman is looking into the matter. Although the laws may be complicated, “…and yet, something as simple as allowing a frail, elderly woman to come and say goodbye to her dying sister—it’s impossible to resolve”.

Perhaps congressional pressure will bring the two sisters together one last time.

Town and Gown Disagree about the New University Master Plan

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imageThe new plans call for a mixed-use development with retail space on the ground floor and student housing above. The housing is especially important, because USC students have moved into housing that would have been rented by local families. The proposed housing units in the new development should return 900 units to the community, according to the Master Plan for University Village. However, this may not bring the expected benefits to the neighborhood. Paulina Gonzalez, Executive Director of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), a South Los Angeles community housing and economic development group, said,

“…even though the analysis that the university has released says that there’ll be 900 units
that will be released back to the community, those units have been lost [from] the rent
stabilization ordinance, so previously, where they might have been affordable to local families,
now they’re no longer under rent control—those rents can actually be significantly higher than
when they were initially lost.”

SAJE also has concerns that local merchants currently in the Village will not find a place in the new development. Akim Alam, owner of Quik Pix, a photo shop and portrait studio which has been in the Village for 30 years, echoed these concerns:

“Well, it isn’t a priority or nothing like that , so whenever they are done [with rebuilding], they
[the merchants] can apply…but that doesn’t guarantee nothing. It doesn’t matter how long you
have been over here doing business…you’re just like any other people.”

Information given by the University to merchants like Alam states that 160,000 square feet will be allotted for ground-floor retail space and 400,000 square feet for academic needs and conference spaces. That’s a 40% increase over the amount for retail. The Master Plan projects that the redevelopment will generate $1.7 million dollars in tax revenue.

University Village is owned by USC. It was created in the 1960s, when the City of Los Angeles used its powers of eminent domain to claim land for the university. Such a heavy-handed approach has left a legacy of distrust in the neighborhood which underlies the skepticism about the benefits of the new development. The new project will be paid for completely out of private funding and will not claim any land not already owned by the university.
A further concern of SAJE, Alam, and other merchants interviewed for this piece is that they have not been an integral part of developing the plan. David Galaviz, USC’s representative for local government relations, said that the community has been deeply involved, with over 100 public meetings held between 2007 and 2009. Community members, both for and against the development, were able to give feedback at these meetings throughout the planning process.

The redevelopment is now slated to start in 2013 and is expected to take six to ten years to complete. Merchants currently in the Village do not know if they’ll be relocated during the building process.

Demonstrators arrested in downtown anti-Wall Street protests

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imageTen anti-Wall Street protesters were arrested downtown Thursday afternoon after entering a Bank of America. They were a small part of Re-fund California, a coalition that marched to protest bank policies. They were joined by demonstrators from Occupy LA, who’ve been camping outside City Hall since this weekend.

The march started with a rally at California Plaza, then snaked its way through the skyscrapers and food plazas in the financial heart of LA.

The marchers stopped at the intersection of 7th and Figueroa streets, in front of both a Bank of America branch and a Chase Bank office in the Ernst and Young plaza.

The marchers were young and old; black, white, Hispanic, Asian; students, grandparents, homeowners, young families. All were upset with the irresponsibility of financial organizations.

Barbara Gustafson joined the protest after she saw a lack of cooperation from banks.

“It’s game playing and you don’t get the same person to talk to,” she said. “They don’t want to work with you because it behooves them to foreclose. I am not an activist by nature. I’ve been forced to do this.”

A police spokesperson estimated that 1,000 people turned up for the protest, which mirrors the Occupy LA protests of the last week.

James McDade works in the financial services industry, but said he supports the protesters.

“It’s democracy at work,” he said. “People have the right to express their opposition to ideas, and I think it’s great.”

The march was a coalition of groups including ACCE, the SEIU, and various faith-based groups.

New study says medical marijuana dispensaries lower crime rates

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A new study released by the RAND Corporation concludes that medical marijuana dispensaries decrease crime levels. The RAND Corporation’s study looked at crime rates in the areas surrounding 600 dispensaries. 170 of those shops closed after the LA City Council passed an ordinance shutting 70% of dispensaries last year. The study claims crime increased up to 60% within a three-block radius of the dispensaries after closing. Within six blocks, the rate was 25%. The LAPD has no official response yet to the the study, but Department Spokesman Lieutenant Andy Neiman did say:

“I can tell you that we know very factually that there have been very serious crimes at certain pot dispensaries, including burglary, robbery, and also murder.”

Lieutenant Neiman says the study’s conclusions don’t match the LAPD’s experience:

“You know, it’s something that has always been contrary to the common wisdom of law enforcement.”

LAPD is considering whether it will conduct its own study of the issue. Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group, has conducted studies which echo RAND’s findings. Don Duncan, the group’s California Director, says the LAPD’s response is typical:

“I’m not surprised to see law enforcement skeptical—they’ve ignored research on this topic and the experiences we’ve had in the past.”

Duncan hopes that the study will help convince cities to regulate, not ban, medical marijuana:

“So, the most important thing that our elected officials could realize is that they can regulate medical cannabis. It’s not too dangerous, it’s not too complicated, and I hope that the RAND study helps reinforce that point, that regulation is really the way to go”.

The study’s author cautions that the study is a snapshot of the issue and welcomes the opportunity to review more data.