- The Washington Times - Monday, June 15, 2015

D.C. drug dealers have largely abandoned open-air drug markets for the security of online sales and working in local nightlife hot spots, forcing police to adopt a new strategy.

On Monday, the Metropolitan Police Department announced that it is consolidating units that investigate drug and violent crimes at the neighborhood level in an effort to shift enforcement away from low-level users and instead target narcotics suppliers.

Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and Mayor Muriel Bowser also laid out plans to target businesses that sell synthetic marijuana, after a rash of overdoses that were serious but not life-threatening.

“Things aren’t as much neighborhood-based as they used to be,” Chief Lanier said. “Now we are seeing the networks for the drugs that are out there. Certain drugs are networked for nightlife areas like MDMA and Molly.”

On Wednesday, a Sterling, Virginia, woman died after taking the party drug Molly while celebrating her 19th birthday at an Echostage concert in Northeast. Molly is a term used to describe a refined form of Ecstasy, a synthetic drug also known as MDMA. It can drive up body temperature and cause liver, kidney or cardiovascular failure.

By moving away from vice units that worked in each of the seven police districts, Chief Lanier said, the police department will be better poised with a consolidated drug unit to handle large-scale investigations, and the newly formed Criminal Interdiction Unit will be able to target organized criminal enterprises and violent repeat offenders.

Not everyone is a believer in the plan.

Delroy Burton, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police that represents city officers, said the centralization of the units leaves the commanders in charge of neighborhoods with fewer resources. The seven vice units had 15 to 20 officers per police district. Chief Lanier said the Criminal Interdiction Unit will have approximately 100 officers, though Mr. Burton disputes the figure and said it’s more like 50 officers in addition to a handful of supervisors.

“It takes flexibility away. The district commander has to rely on the schedule of a centralized unit that may have other priorities,” Mr. Burton said. “It’s a significant reduction in capabilities just according to staffing alone.”

He hopes the plan will be successful in taking down major narcotics networks, but wonders whether it will compromise neighborhood-level security in the process.

One area where police hope to be able to crack down on offenders more quickly is when businesses are found to be selling synthetic marijuana.

The mayor on Monday detailed her plans to introduce emergency legislation that would give Chief Lanier the ability to temporarily shutter stores that sell it for 96 hours and to issue fines of $10,000 per violation. A second offense could result in a store being closed for up to 30 additional days and another fine of $20,000.

The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and the attorney general’s office currently have the authority to go after businesses that illegally sell synthetic marijuana. However the DCRA’s process to revoke a business license or the attorney general’s filing of a nuisance lawsuit against a business takes a considerable amount of time, and officials were looking for a quicker way to penalize problematic store owners.

“This new drug enforcement strategy gives law enforcement and regulatory agencies the ability to crack down on the very suppliers that are responsible for these troubling proliferations,” Chief Lanier said.

The legislation still has to be introduced to the D.C. Council for review and adoption. The legislation was not listed among emergency legislation expected to be introduced at Tuesday’s council meeting. A spokesman for the mayor said the proposal was still being finalized and he was unable to provide a timeline for when it would be introduced.

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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