What’s the Connection Between Drugs and Gangs on Long Island?

Gangs and drugs.

With an upswing in gang-related murders, drug overdose deaths and all that comes with unchecked violence and untreated addiction, Long Island is struggling under the weight of two problems that have cracked our suburban veneer.

There’s a common thread between the challenges, but it’s not what you think. Sure, gangs sell drugs and the heroin trade has surely bolstered organized crime in our area as thousands of addicted young people travel from north shore communities into Hempstead, Central Islip and Brentwood to get their fix.

But the common thread here is hopelessness, sadness and despair.

Gangs create alternative realities – a new family, a sense of belonging, a sense of certainty and a sense of power. Opioids, heroin and Xanax numb the pain, calm the nerves and allow a temporary escape. Without intervention, addiction is progressive and so is gang membership and violence.

There’s another common thread in how we approach both problems.

We declare war. A war on gangs and a war on drugs.

We ratchet up the rhetoric, we give police departments new guns, helicopters, and personnel.

We tamp down the problem just enough to quell the public outrage and fear, but it seems we never get to the root causes.

Kids join gangs because it’s easier to get a gun than it is to get a job. They use drugs because it’s easier to get heroin than it is to get treatment. Arrest one gang member or a drug dealer and two more will take their place. Despite outward appearances, they’ll do it somewhat reluctantly and after traveling a road that brings them to that place. That’s where and when we should be intervening.

Instead, we wait. Then we try to wrestle that gun or needle from their hands as they hold on for dear life.

War is ugly, dangerous, scary and threatening. It’s a primitive response that’s not working.

As we deploy more cops, how about we also deploy more social workers? Let’s replace crime scenes with community centers and targeted investigations with targeted job opportunities. Let’s counter gang recruitment tactics with multigenerational exit strategies. Let’s rebuild our community parks, make sure there are things for kids to do and help indigenous community leaders change the culture from inside. Let’s make sure that those who need counseling or treatment can get it upon request 24/7 in as many settings as possible.

And here’s a novel idea: Let’s ask some individuals, families, and communities what they think will work.