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Twenty-four-Hour Stores: Time For Action

Helen Ubiñas

October 11, 2009

If it wasn't so frustrating, it might have been comical that nearly a month after a North End mom called me to complain about the 24-hour store near her house, I was still scrambling for answers.

"It's ridiculous, the kind of stuff that goes on there," Jessica Radney said when we first met.

Outside, people up to no good congregating at all hours. Buying drugs, selling drugs — and worse.

Inside, the kind of stuff for sale — rolling paper, crack pipes lamely disguised as novelties — that makes the area a natural trouble magnet.

"My daughter has to walk past there on her way home from school," Radney said, "and it's just not safe."

Sure, this wasn't the first time I'd heard these complaints. These stores have long been an issue in Hartford.

Four years ago, when I wrote a column opposing a proposed curfew on these neighborhood stores, I insisted there were plenty of laws on the books to deal with them.

Stop trying to reinvent the wheel, I chastised, and just enforce the laws.

And just two years ago, the city council responded to community pressure with a new ordinance to crack down on the stores — and yet, here we are again.

Someone's not doing their job, I thought when Radney called — simple as that.

Except it turns out, and it sort of pains me to admit it, it really isn't that simple.

OK, what about if we arrest the store owners for selling drug paraphernalia, I suggested to police Lt. Emory Hightower during one of our ongoing debates over the stores.

It's not that simple, Hightower said; drug paraphernalia laws don't really apply to those stores.

Wait; it gets more frustrating. City and state departments can fine and even close down a store — at least for a while. But if the store's in compliance — which, surprisingly, the store Radney complained about is — there's not much they can do.

That anti-loitering ordinance I was so hot on; still useful, but who gets arrested when people scatter as soon as the cops — already targeting a lot of these stores — show up?

This is a tough call. It doesn't make sense to punish law-abiding residents for the illegal actions of a few. Residents in Hartford's neighborhoods should have access to the conveniences available in so many other communities.

But even when the stores aren't doing anything wrong, too often they attract everything from minor nuisances to serious crime.

Whatever the city is doing clearly isn't enough.

Why not make it illegal to sell the stuff that draws so much of the trouble? While an increasing number of cities have amended their drug ordinances to ban neighborhood stores from selling any items used for ingesting illegal drugs, Hartford isn't one of them.

Why? Make it a crime to sell rolling paper, blunts, glass vials — whatever makes these places one-stop drug shops. Bust, and prosecute, those who break the law. And while I opposed those curfews, maybe it's time for them, too.

Sure, most of the activities that concern Radney are happening in the middle of the day. But they ratchet up the later it gets.

I get that there are competing needs in a city; living in a city is all about balance. But right now, for Harper and many other residents the burden of these stores far outweighs their convenience.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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