Teaming up to fight drugs

White House official urges community coalition building
Tuesday, April 26, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:16 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The last time an official from the Office of National Drug Control Policy came to Columbia, the city was days from voting on a citizen-driven proposal to de-emphasize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Voters in 2003 rejected the proposed ordinance, but a similar proposal won strong support at the polls in November and is being targeted for repeal by the Columbia Police Officers Association.

A representative of the same White House office spoke in Columbia on Monday, encouraging local drug-prevention organizations to think of creative ways to prevent drug abuse.

Mary Ann Solberg, deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the most effective way to reduce drug abuse among young people is through community coalition building.

Solberg made no mention of the new ordinance that makes possession of 35 grams or less of marijuana the city’s “lowest law enforcement priority.” Nor did she mention ongoing repeal efforts.

In fact, when contacted last week, she said she was unaware that Columbia even had such an ordinance.

During her speech, Solberg offered numerous examples of what she has seen done elsewhere. One community held a youth conference where adults were not allowed to speak — only listen to the students’ perspective.

“We are not dealing with a war,” Solberg said, “we are dealing with a public health threat.”

The best way to calm that threat, she said, is by organizing coalitions that offer parenting advice, offering information about good activities for youths and surveying the community to see what work must be done.

“Drug use is a local problem,” she said. “It demands a local solution.”

The luncheon at Peach Tree Banquet Center was sponsored by the Columbia Housing Authority, Columbia Police Department and Central Missouri Counties’ Human Development Corp.

Doris Chiles, executive director of the Columbia Housing Authority, said Solberg’s visit had nothing to do with efforts to repeal the new ordinance. Chiles said she invited Solberg to speak because she wanted to strengthen the size of the Columbia Youth Prevention Policy Board, which she co-chairs and has about 20 active members. The board has been organized since 2003 and last year was approved for a federal four-year grant of $100,000 annually. Chiles said she hopes some of the almost 100 people who attended the luncheon decide to join the cause.

The event attracted educators, health care providers, college students and city staff. Police Chief Randy Boehm and First Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton also attended.

Rose Aker, an adolescent-treatment provider for the behavioral health-care provider Pathways, said she would first like the community to acknowledge that there is a drug problem and then respond.

“Denial in a community is as deadly as drug use,” Aker said.

Aker said the drug problems of Columbia’s youth aren’t unique, but they still need to be addressed.

“Drug use in all communities looks the same. There’s use, there’s abuse and there’s addiction,” Aker said. “Communities need to identify the need for substance-abuse prevention, intervention and services.”

Boehm said the police department agreed to sponsor the event when the housing authority contacted him about the possibility. The department paid $250 to cover part of the cost of the lunch, which Boehm said is not related to efforts by an association of city police officers to repeal the new city law.

Last month, the Columbia Police Officers Association launched a petition drive aimed at asking voters to repeal the 6-month-old ordinance.

Columbia Police Officer Association President Sterling Infield said last week that the petition drive was going well. Officers are continuing to collect signatures in hopes of getting the issue on the ballot “as soon as possible.” Infield declined to offer a number when asked how many signatures the association had collected.

City Clerk Sheela Amin said 2,276 signatures would have to be submitted to her office by July for the issue to be placed on the Nov. 8 ballot. She said it is too late for the issue to appear on the June or August ballots.

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