Hope on the Drug Front

August 01, 1991

Drugs and the violence they spawn have taken over the streets in many cities, including parts of Baltimore. Bizarre gun battles, murders and chaos in residential neighborhoods once considered stable, if poor, often make promises of a "war on drugs" seem empty, impossible to fulfill.

Not so. A lawyer-led group, the American Alliance for Rights & Responsibilities, has looked anew at the lawlessness that has made so many people hopeless. It has produced the first-ever national inventory of the techniques citizen groups have used with success against street drug markets. "The Winnable War: A Community Guide to Eradicating Street Drug Markets," by Roger Conner and Patrick Burns, is an eye-opener. (See Letters.)

Noting that federally led efforts against major drug rings have largely bypassed street drug operations, the authors argue that such operations actually do more to destabilize communities than more "private" drug rings. The authors say the key to success is stripping away the sense of impunity felt by drug dealers and their street customers as they go about their small transactions. They suggest concrete steps to broadcast community intolerance of narcotics trafficking and deny the traffickers access to space in which to sell their wares. For all their frightening firepower and their bluff and bluster, drug dealers really don't want to draw attention to themselves. Thus, community patrols, or even the less confrontational tactics of East Baltimore's Israel Baptist Church, marching and praying in the streets, rarely provoke attacks.

Street dealing is an intensely local problem, even if drug smuggling, wholesaling and distribution are national and international problems. Thus, street dealing is susceptible to local solutions, once committed citizens take up the cause. That's a heartening counter to the near-constant refrain of hopelessness from people who should know better about the drug trade. Something can be done to reclaim the barricaded neighborhoods stifling the poorest citizens of Baltimore and other cities, this important study contends. That news has been a long time coming.

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