First you hear it from the three guys hustling drink money on Eutaw Street: Kurt Schmoke and drugs. Then you hear it from the two ladies melting in the afternoon heat at Fayette and St. Paul: The mayor wants to legalize narcotics. Then there's the old man on Hanover Street, and the two shoppers on Howard Street, and the other people whose names you don't write down because they're all starting to run together after a while.
"He's a bright young man," says the first lady at Fayette and St. Paul.
"Except for this dope business," says the second lady.
"Except for that," agrees the first.
It begins to sound like echoes shouted across an alley after a while. The mayor is this nice young man, he's this wonderful role model for young people, and everybody wishes him well.
Except, you see, for this drug business.
It is now 21 months since Mayor Schmoke drove down to Washington and told a U.S. Senate committee that America's drug policies were a flop and a charade and that drastic changes had to be made. Everyone in political life seemed aghast: Drug problems America couldn't solve? But hadn't the president declared war on drugs?
Ted Koppel invited Schmoke onto national television for a late-night chat. On Capitol Hill, senators who knew ghetto neighborhoods from speeding through them in limousines took their whacks at the young mayor without entirely listening to what he'd said.
And, around here, in the midst of an election campaign 21 months after the initial words were uttered, there are still people walking around wondering why Kurt L. Schmoke wants to legalize narcotics traffic in a nation already brought to its knees by the drug dealers and the junkies and the crimes they commit to support their habits.
"Don't the mayor know what drugs are doing to the community?" this guy on Eutaw Street asks irritably. His face is all sharp geometric angles. He and two others are hustling drink money in the parking lot outside the Lexington Market.
"Drugs is what's wiping out the community," a second guy says.
Leave aside, for the moment, the irony of alcoholics issuing lofty pronouncements on the dangers of drug abuse. Leave aside the irony of one poison -- alcohol -- being legal and another illegal for no other apparent reason. Their point is still well taken: About one in 10 Baltimoreans has a substance abuse problem, but the existing treatment programs can only help about one in 20.
And so the drug addicts, desperate for a fix, are breaking into houses and knocking down old ladies on street corners. And dealers, desperate to protect their piece of the action, are shooting bullets at each other and sometimes taking innocent bystanders in the process.
This, while the president of the United States assures us that great strides are being made, that the trafficking is being reduced, that people are indeed just saying no.
In the face of such lying, what's remembered around here is the mayor of Baltimore 21 months ago saying: This isn't working.
But instead of getting points for telling the truth, he's carrying this 2-year-old piece of politically unwanted baggage.
"No, no, he wasn't trying to say legalize drugs," Tracy Brown, director of the mayor's coordinating council on criminal justice, said yesterday. "He was saying the current way hasn't worked, and we need to have a debate on national policy."
Like others around the mayor, Brown is being coy.
In Washington, the mayor talked of decriminalizing drugs, providing "legal access to currently illicit substances" as a way of taking the profit out of narcotics. Remove the profits, you remove the supply.
The only people left supplying the stuff would be the government, which would then deal with addicts not as criminals but as patients. Turn the fight over to the surgeon general, not the attorney general, Schmoke said. And even those who sneered at him 21 months ago might notice that more and more law enforcement people now talk of the need for treatment and education and not merely prosecution.
Four years ago, the city checked the records of 6,910 addicts who'd signed up for treatment. In the previous two-year period, about two-thirds of them had been arrested at least one time.
No community can live with those kinds of numbers. But, having issued brave words about a new kind of war, the mayor then caught a barrage of flak from those who said he was waving a white flag of surrender.
So he softened his stance: All he'd suggested, he said now, was an open debate about drugs. All he wanted was an admission that current policies were a flop and we needed an
other kind of attack.
Now, 21 months later, you have people criticizing him for wanting to legalize drugs. This means the mayor failed twice: He didn't articulate his original position clearly enough. And, having made it, he didn't stand by it.
So we're looking at an election six weeks down the road, and a lot of voters are still unclear. They know the city's drowning in the blood of drug victims. They know the cops are undermanned, the courts are backed up, the prisons are overcrowded.
And they remember something from 21 months ago about the mayor and talk of legalizing drugs. What was it all about? It was about attacking drugs as a health problem and not merely as a crime. It was about the failure of current policies. It was about . . .
Hell, after 21 months, why isn't the mayor explaining it in his own words?