Taking it to the streets

May 06, 1991

The arrest last week of an 11-year-old boy as part of a drug sweep in the city is vivid evidence, as if Baltimore needed any more, that not only are we losing the war against drugs, but also, its victims increasingly are younger and more vulnerable.

The 11-year-old was a "runner," hired by a drug dealer, as are many other children, precisely because they are minors and as such, if they are caught, will likely face legal penalties less harsh than those meted out to adults. These kids are frightfully easy to coerce; the promise of big money in a poor neighborhood is usually lure enough.

The traditional, punitive law enforcement approach is a sorely inadequate response. In reality, it does little more than write off these children by labeling them as criminals at an early age, then warehousing them in juvenile detention centers, stifling whatever productive potential they may possess. Nonetheless, the "law enforcement" mind set has dominated the national drug war for a decade.

Last month the nation's new drug czar, Bob Martinez, indicated there may be a turnaround in U.S. policy. Unlike his predecessor, William Bennett, Martinez says he wants to focus federal resources on drug education and treatment programs. This is surely a welcome new beginning. But the problem is, even if Martinez can manage to wangle sufficient federal funds, much of the money meant for the streets simply will never get there.

The reason is that in virtually every state, a whole new bureaucracy has grown up around the drug war -- an organization of state drug czars, assistant czars and public relations people that siphons off a significant portion of the federal drug money to keep itself in business. Essentially, under the current system, federal money intended to fight the drug war ends up funding a state bureaucracy that then distributes a fraction of it to cities and counties.

Breaking state government's addiction to federal money is no easy task. But the arrest of an 11-year-old child on drug charges ought be a clear message that taxpayers' dollars would be better spent if federal grants went directly to local jurisdictions, where they might actually help the people who need it most, rather than perpetuate more bureaucracies.

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