Why Crime-Fighters Can't Win the Drug War

TIM BAKER

September 02, 1991|By TIM BAKER

Let's play a game. Let's pretend that you and I are drug addicts.

Say I'm a middle-class guy who played around with cocaine back in the 1980s and got hooked. I've got a job, a wife, some kids, two cars, a split-level home in suburban Baltimore and a $250-a-week habit.

Say you grew up in Murphy Homes or one of the other public housing projects in the Baltimore ghettos. You dropped out of high school, couldn't find a job, smoked some dope, got into trouble, spent a year in the pen and went back on the streets when you came out. Things seemed hopeless. So you tried some crack and got hooked. Now you, too, have a $250-a-week cocaine habit.

Here's the game. We both want to kick our addictions, but we don't know how. Let's see how long it takes each of us to get help. Ready, get set, go.

As you might expect, I get the jump on you. I've got a job. If my employer has an Employee Assistance Program, it'll carry me while I'm in treatment. My health benefits will pay for it. Of course, in the last few years my employer's health-insurance company has cut back substantially on in-patient care for drug addiction, so I may not qualify for a month or two at a residential detoxification center. But some experts think that out-patient treatment programs work fine anyway.

Maybe I'm not quite so lucky, however. Maybe I work for a small business which cannot afford an EAP. Maybe the company's health-insurance program skimps on medical care for substance abuse. Maryland law requires health-insurance companies to provide at least 30 days of in-patient care and $3,000 of out-patient treatment. But $3,000 goes fast. Anyway, those state requirements only cover the 30 percent of us who even have any health-insurance coverage. Maybe I'll find out that I don't have any coverage at all for substance abuse.

Suddenly I don't like this game anymore. My circumstances have thrown me into the same situation you've suffered all along -- Maryland's public drug-treatment system.

In April 1990, Suzanne Wooton published an award-winning series in The Sun that showed how the growing number of addicts has overwhelmed our chronically underfunded state system. The programs couldn't begin to cope with the drug epidemic of the last decade. Thousands of addicts languish for months on waiting lists. As one drug counselor told her, ''we're basically sending people back on the street who've reached out for help.''

Since those articles appeared, $9 million a year in new federal funds have increased Maryland's total annual narcotics rehabilitation budget to $60 million. The state used that new money to cover deficits in existing programs and to fund new residential and intensive outpatient-care programs. New comprehensive programs can now handle more pregnant cocaine addicts. But the new money has increased the state's total treatment capacity by only 5.2 percent. The state remains far behind its current and projected needs for treatment slots.

Since 1989 the state's budget crisis has precluded any increase at all in Maryland's investment in drug treatment. Further budget cuts are imminent, and this time they will actually reduce narcotics treatment in the state. Today the waiting lists are as long as ever. Look at heroin. Last year, an increase in the cost of methadone ate up the new federal funds allocated for that overloaded program. Other public drug programs must continue to put addicts on waiting lists. Chrysalis House still turns away at least 50 women every month.

While our treatment programs remain underfunded, Maryland, like the rest of the nation, continues to spend a fortune on narcotics-law enforcement. Our state and national narcotics strategies still heavily emphasize punishment and incarceration, in- stead of treatment, prevention and education. In the war on drugs, 80 percent of our money goes to law enforcement and prisons.

When I served as U.S. Attorney for Maryland in the late 1970s, I allocated three lawyers to narcotics prosecutions. Now the office has 19 prosecutors working full time on drugs. Federal and state prisons bulge with the vast numbers of drug offenders -- now 53 percent of all federal prisoners.

Yet the narcotics supply has increased in Maryland and across the country. State and federal prosecutors simply cannot stem the tide as long as people want drugs. They can only fight to hold the line until treatment, prevention and education programs reduce the demand for narcotics.

Four years ago, Mayor Schmoke courageously suggested that we should consider the legalization of drugs. Along with The Economist and a few other authorities, he argues that if we legalize, control, regulate, tax, treat and discourage drug use, rather than prohibit and punish it, we can reduce the crime and violence that now ravage our cities. I don't agree with him. I'm scared that legalization will lead to a substantial increase in the number of drug abusers, especially among teen-agers.

Mr. Schmoke's underlying premise, however, is correct: Narcotics is primarily a public-health problem, which the criminal law cannot solve. If we cannot reduce the number of people willing to buy drugs, we'll never stop the people willing to sell them, no matter how many new prosecutors and new prisons we throw into the battle.

That reality should drive us to one clear conclusion: we can't win this game unless we emphasize -- and adequately fund -- treatment, prevention and education.

If you and I were really hooked on drugs, we would quickly figure that out.

Tim Baker writes on issues of city and state.

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