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Dispatches from the Drug War: Public Opinion and the Policing of Drug Use in Jacksonville

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Recent Points inductee Kyle Bridge devoted some of his M.A. research to drug use trends and crime rates in Jacksonville, Florida. Here he presents a modified and abridged version of his work.

Downtown Jacksonville (Image: Wikipedia)

Since at least the early twentieth century, as regular Points readers will know, many Americans have associated illicit drug use with criminality or otherwise deviant behavior. This holds especially true in the last fifty years of U.S. history, and some politicians have made significant hay with the issue. Combating drug abuse was a prominent plank in Richard Nixon’s 1968 platform. “Narcotics are a modern curse of American youth,” he claimed in a campaign speech, and in his first term the President committed to an “all-out assault” on what he labeled “public enemy number-one.” National worries were based on a legitimate correlation: in 1969 users made up a significant portion if not the majority of criminal perpetrators in metro areas including Los Angeles, the District of Columbia, New York, and Boston.

Nixon’s the One (but not the only one)

As a student of history and lifelong Jacksonville resident (actually Callahan, a small town just north of the city), I was curious about the local dynamic of this association, and how it changed over time. The Jacksonville public regarded drug use with an unsurprising wariness, similar to Americans nationwide. Still, policing drug use warranted little attention in local politics until around 1995, almost a half-decade after crime rates peaked during the crack epidemic. In fact new attention to drug use surfaced three years into what would become an almost entirely consistent twenty-year crime decline. By the turn of the millennium, the drug arrest rate had jumped to 1,115.18 per 100,000, almost doubling rates from the height of the crack epidemic (never higher than 689.62).

So why did Jacksonville drug arrests increase after 1995? For one, that year voters elected a new mayor and sheriff, John Delaney and Nat Glover, both of whom earned their law enforcement stripes in the crack era. Having witnessed the criminal excesses and social consequences of rampant crack trade and addiction, these two officials had incentive to amplify anti-drug attitudes. Incarcerating drug dealers and users had the dual benefits of possibly sustaining low crime rates but also made for excellent politics. A Florida Times Union poll found 32 percent of Jacksonville residents identified crime as the most important election issue, almost triple the next highest factor (education at 12 percent). Among former Assistant State Attorney and then-mayoral candidate Delaney’s 1995 campaign promises, adding 128 new police officers was consistently listed first in advertisements and media pieces. He further pledged a legislative agenda intended to keep criminals locked up through their entire sentences. Sheriff candidate Nat Glover also insisted on elevating police presence, no less a result of his experience within the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO) than as a reflection of local public opinion.

But Jacksonville’s drug arrest explosion was not unique. Across the country police departments were ratcheting up arrests as drugs like marijuana, ecstasy, and prescription pills attracted new users in the fallout of crack and Nancy Reagan’s surprisingly (but selectively) successful “Just Say No” campaign. Rising heroin purity also ensured some addicts remained committed to their drug of choice. Though far from epidemic levels, use was not simply isolated among marginalized populations and became a public problem. Factoring in the post-Reagan culture politics besieging a Democratic White House, it is no surprise policymakers escalated the drug war.

Raw drug arrest data (Image: Bureau of Justice Statistics)

Raw drug arrest data (Image: Bureau of Justice Statistics)

Returning to Jacksonville, the dramatic rise in local attention to drug use begs a question: why not sooner? Violent crime offense rates steeply climbed every year from 1983 to 1990, peaking at 1,738.23. Reported crime of all types crested the following year at 10,574.49. A few reasons might explain the dissonance. First, at a very basic level, Jacksonville is a sprawling city. Voters removed from chronic drug trade had every reason to make the stench from the city’s paper mills or elimination of tolls their primary concerns in 1987 and 1991 (which they did). Interviews with veteran police officers also potentially indicate a lack of effective strategy. One officer, a rookie in 1990, remembered the department “was all about crack,” but only over time did the idea crystallize that “we’ve got to get these guys off the street.” Day-to-day drug markets operated only in a few sub-sectors of a few police zones, further insulating drug use from much citywide attention.

JSO Policing Zones (Source: JSO)

JSO Policing Zones (Image: JSO)

That was the 1990s. What’s going on today? In the course of my research I collected some oral histories from former Jacksonville addicts. One astutely reminded me, “they didn’t call it the ‘Oxycontin Highway’ through Florida without good reason.” Drug use became a less visible problem as the typical addict transformed into a prescription pill abuser by the mid-2000s. One counselor for the Jacksonville drug court, a diversionary program for nonviolent drug offenders, recalled meeting “more cocaine users up until about 2008.” Either Jacksonville hosted more cocaine use than other substances, or JSO simply busted more cocaine and crack users on negotiating on the streets than pill-poppers nodding off behind closed doors.

In any event, drug arrest rates have fallen precipitously in the last half-decade. Drug use is not a hot topic in Jacksonville at the moment. The issue of the day regarding police is not crime but the looming pension crisis. Furthermore, Florida remains at least divided on an approaching measure to legalize medical marijuana. Put simply, attitudes are changing. But, if drug history has taught us anything, it is that attitudes can change again. Another oral history subject shared his insight on current drug trends in Jacksonville (and probably nationwide):

“At the time I started [in the late 2000s], the pills were better than the heroin. Now, though, heroin is becoming more popular and it’s that much better, and therefore it’s that much more dangerous. There are countless stories of people going back out and taking heroin for the first time after relapsing, and dying. That’s because they’re cracking down on the pills. The pills are harder to get, they’re more expensive, so now heroin is coming back and it’s cheaper and better.”

It remains to be seen how the current opiate epidemic will influence policy, policing, and public opinion.

Local histories of the drug war allow some keen insights perhaps overlooked from the macro level. I thankfully welcome comments on my research or reflections on similar projects.


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