George Pyle: Interdiction doesn’t work at the Rio Grande — the street or the river

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A homeless man who was reported by a restaurant along North Temple for exposing himself when he urinated in the flowers in front of the business refuses to give his name, and his uncooperative behavior leads to his arrest, as officers check his pockets for drugs on Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018. Members of the west-side policing bicycle squad patrol Glendale and Rose Park with an emphasis along North Temple, where they have seen an increase in criminal activity following Operation Rio Grande, nearing the halfway mark.

“Fixed fortifications are monuments to man’s stupidity. If mountain ranges and oceans can be overcome, anything made by man can be overcome.”

— Gen. George S. Patton

Businesses do not fail because they don’t have salesmen. They fail because they don’t have customers.

That’s the case whether your product is a Betamax or methamphetamines. Whether your market is goods, capital or labor.

Police officers, politicians and just plan folks continue to push and pull and plan and worry and react and wonder why all the efforts and money that have been put into cleaning up the perfectly ugly storm of pitiable homeless people and heartless drug dealers that used to be centered on Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood still haven’t put an end to the problem.

The look and feel of Rio Grande Street and the nearby Pioneer Park and The Gateway — where sits The Salt Lake Tribune — are stunningly different than they used to be. Not the garden spot of the valley, necessarily, but much less frightening than the area was at its worst.

The cops on this beat, meanwhile, are making no claims of ultimate victory. They are still chasing down drug dealers and felons, and dealing with their victims and the collateral damage. It’s just all taking place over a wider area. North Temple. Library Square. Liberty Park.

The most recent report on the subject by The Tribune’s indefatigable numbers man Lee Davidson (the only journalist who should be allowed to do math in print) reveals that the 10-member law enforcement team that continues to pursue the drug traffickers who are drawn to sell to, and hide among, the homeless population has remained very busy. Nearly 500 arrests, most of them of dealers, as well as 33 firearms seized, 27 stolen vehicles recovered and a quantity of illegal drugs snapped up that was measured in pounds, when we all know the real flow of stuff through the area is properly measured in tons.

And, despite the relentless and risky efforts of our law enforcement officers, it’s all nearly as pointless as every other skirmish in the War on Drugs.

As all good Utah free-market Republicans should know in their souls, there is no overcoming the law of supply and demand. As long as there is a market for illegal drugs of any and every kind, there will be a supply. Dealers can go through a revolving door of weak justice or be hanged on the spot. The prices may fluctuate. Specific substances will go out of fashion, to be replaced by other concoctions, natural or artificial. Cartels will rise and fall, some taken out by the cops, others shot down by rivals.

Interdiction has never stopped the flow of heroin into Utah, blue jeans and Bibles into the Soviet Union or Mongol hordes into Ming Dynasty China.

It is a smaller version of what is being argued about in that other Rio Grande neighborhood, the border between the United States and Mexico. That’s the focus of supposed Republicans who — clearly having forgotten anything they ever knew about supply and demand — have closed so much of the government trying to divert attention from the president’s pending implosion by demanding $5 billion for a pointless modern version of the Maginot Line.

Some understanding that ending demand rather than stopping supply is behind the idea that employers in El Norte should be punished for hiring unauthorized workers. But that’s as unlikely to work as punishing people for any other willing buyer/willing seller economic transaction. Especially in a world where nobody who matters thinks it is a good idea to put national borders around goods or, certainly, capital.

Meanwhile, efforts to truly address the Utah problem proceed on a parallel track. If, that is, the people who are proud to fund the law-enforcement component and give lip service to the human service angle will get out of the way.

It helps that state and local officials are looking for ways to create more housing and hurrying to build three new service centers to replace the old Road Home homeless shelter. That’s the place that spent years pedaling as fast as it could to keep the homeless from starving or freezing to death, with precious little help from anyone, and was only seen to be unequal to the job when the property-developing oligarchy that truly rules Utah wanted to gentrify the neighborhood.

You know, like when we took Oklahoma back from the Indians.

[Is Half of Oklahoma an Indian Reservation? — The New York Times]

But the closest thing to a silver bullet that has ever been on offer to truly deal with the problems of the homeless or otherwise desperate folks who turn to illegal drugs to self-medicate is the expansion of the federal Medicaid program as called for in the original Affordable Care Act.

Utah’s voters were smart and compassionate enough to approve just that, by voting in Proposition 3 last November. They know, unlike too many of our elected officials, that smart and compassionate are complementary values, not competing ones. They know that it is the best hope we have of providing the treatment necessary to do the only thing that will really drive the drug dealers away: End the line of customers.

Utah’s Legislature has steadfastly resisted that move, putting the lie to anything any of them ever said about really wanting to solve the problem of homelessness, intergenerational poverty or a slug of other social and economic problems. Now there is word that some lawmakers are out to sabotage Prop 3, for no intelligible reason other than that they can.

Any legislator who votes to touch one hair on Prop 3′s head should have a homeless family assigned to move in with them. No walls allowed.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune staff. George Pyle.

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, thanks the online commenters who drew his attention to the Gen. Patton quote above. gpyle@sltrib.com @debatestate

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