Rethinking the war on drugs

April 24, 1992

A year into his first term as mayor, former state's attorney Kurt L. Schmoke stunned the law enforcement community with a call for a national debate on decriminalizing drugs. Treating drugs solely as a law enforcement matter, Mr. Schmoke said, not only clogs the courts and fills the prisons to overflowing but tars an entire generation with the stigma of criminality. Better to approach the drug epidemic as a public health issue, he suggested, and develop alternatives to deal with drug offenders that emphasize rehabilitation and job training.

Mr. Schmoke's idea was hooted down; the country went right on building more prisons and filling them up as fast as they were completed -- and the crime rate continued to soar. Now a new study from the District of Columbia has tallied up the social costs. A report by the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, a Washington-based advocacy group, has found that 42 percent of that city's black males between 18 to 35 were in prison, on parole or probation, free on bond pending trial or being sought for arrest. That's two out of five young black men enmeshed in the criminal justice system. Moreover, the study's author suggests the figures are probably similar in a city like Baltimore.

Any community that loses almost half its young men to prison is headed for disaster. Yet it is the paradox of America's failed urban policies that drugs are both the most destructive social force in poor communities and the only market force capable of generating incomes for large numbers of disadvantaged, economically marginal young people. Given America's single-minded focus on a criminal justice solution to the drug dilemma, it should come as no surprise that such young people now are being incarcerated in record numbers.

The Washington study did not directly address the proportion of crimes that are drug-related. But it is clear that the explosion in the crime rate -- and in the arrest rates of young, black inner-city men -- coincides with crack-cocaine surge of the last decade.

There are valid objections to decriminalization; no one, for example, knows how many more people would become addicts if drugs were legal. But it is equally clear that the present solutions just aren't working.

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