Pubdate: Wed, 28 Apr 2010
Source: SF Weekly (CA)
Copyright: 2010 Village Voice Media
Author: Chris Roberts

Drug Policy


Elaine Mason is no saint - the 52-year-old with no fixed address has 
been arrested 49 times in San Francisco - but the case that could 
land her in prison isn't exactly Scarface-worthy. In January, she was 
walking in the Mission District near 16th Street when a man 
approached her and asked for a solid (street slang for a $20 rock of 
crack cocaine).

Mason brought the man to two possible sellers before the pair found a 
17-year-old girl who had drugs on hand - except she was a burn artist 
who sold them "bunk," fake crack. That didn't matter: The buyer was 
an undercover police officer conducting a "buy-bust" operation, and 
Mason, who had brokered the deal, was arrested and charged with a felony.

Buy-busts - in which teams of five to 11 undercover officers solicit 
drugs on the street - are a prized success story for the SFPD and the 
district attorney's office, according to DA spokesman Brian Buckelew. 
That's one way of looking at it. The other is that buy-busts are 
expensive wastes of time that accomplish little other than clogging 
up the courts with low-level addicts while providing gobs of overtime 
to narcotics cops, according to senior public defender Rebecca Young. 
She figures that at least 150 cases like Mason's go through the 
courts every month.

The buy-bust program rounds up some professional criminals who deal 
drugs for a living, but these comprise "maybe 1 percent" of the 
total, according to Young. Meanwhile, she says, this "dirty secret of 
the criminal justice system" accounts for 40 percent of the cases in 
San Francisco courts, and contributed to the fiasco at the SFPD crime 
lab, with overworked technicians forced to test dime bag after dime 
bag within 48 hours of seizure. These include cases like that of a 
30-year-old homeless man who sold a $60 eighth of marijuana to a cop 
on Haight Street last May, who faces prison time for the pot and the 
small quantity of psilocybin mushrooms he had stashed in a pocket.

Buckelew admits that addicts are "swept up" in the buy-bust 
operations. But if there weren't undercover cops doing the stings, 
gangs from all over the Bay Area might flock to places like the 
Tenderloin, he says: "It's the strongest tool we have in stemming the 
drug trade in these communities."

But at what cost? SFPD overtime spending cleared $40 million in 2008 
and $30 million in 2009, and much of that, Young figures, goes to 
cops running buy-bust stings, clocking overtime while on the streets 
and then earning four hours in court pay waiting to testify in a case 
over a $20 rock. The SFPD "has to prove this is worth $20 million a 
year," she says.
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