The War on Drugs Is Mostly Eyewash


During the course of my tenure in the Felony Arraignment Court last year, not a single case involving a drug dealer at the importer-wholesaler drug-dealing level passed through that court. These drug dealers earn tens of thousands of dollars a week, and they are responsible for crimes of institutional destabilization, such as bribery and corruption.

Instead, I saw the street-level retail dealers. They amounted to a total of 7,352 felony cases in ten months, of which 1,722 resulted in guilty pleas. The average age for drug-case defendants was 25 years, and the average education level was 10th-grade. By contrast, the wholesaler-importer drug dealers hold regular jobs as bankers, accountants, lawyers, doctors and businessmen.

Counting such ''drug-related'' crimes as murders, robberies, thefts and burglaries, approximately 85 percent of all felony cases in Baltimore involve illegal drugs. Yet there is no pressure by society to require the political leadership to confront and control the grave and pervasive problems that are caused by the drug trade.

The dealings of the importer-wholesalers are difficult to detect and prosecute, which is why scant priority has been given to prosecuting lawyers who collect and file false affidavits on behalf of their clients; lawyers who pay alibi witnesses to testify falsely at criminal trials; businessmen and bankers who finance the importation and wholesaling of illegal drugs or who launder drug money and front for drug dealers; and lawyers, accountants and investment bankers who provide the expertise to keep the enormous flow of cash hidden from public scrutiny.

The availability of large sums of cash from the drug trade and the lack of sincere effort on the part of government to control it have corrupted a substantial number of professional people who are now full partners in the importer-wholesaler drug trade. They are not pursued and prosecuted mainly because the social ravages and devastation caused by the drug trade in the inner city have barely touched suburbia.

The government has successfully confined open-air drug dealing the inner city, where the importer-wholesalers and their professional cadre remain invisible. They cannot be detected with binoculars, arrested and paraded on the evening news as are street-level retail drug dealers. Parading these street-level arrestees on television has fooled the public into believing that something is being done to combat the drug problem -- and into thinking incorrectly that the drug problem is a ''black problem.'' The major criminals -- the importer-wholesalers, who are usually white -- go undetected and unindicted.

It cannot be seriously contended that the government cannot drastically slow the supply side of the drug trade with a firm commitment to do so. The financial resources for effective enforcement of the current drug laws would be sufficient to combat the drug trade if the will were present.

The necessary political will will come only when the white (suburban) community feels the pain and ravages of the drug trade to the same extent that they are felt in the African-American (inner city) community. If society postpones the war on drugs much longer, drugs will destroy our institutions. The level of corruption will have so thoroughly infested and corrupted all levels of society as to prevent any effective eradication by law enforcement.

Already we have begun to notice the bribery and murder of potential witnesses and police officers to prevent criminals from being tried and convicted. We also know that the profits from the illegal drug trade contribute substantially to the economy. In the not too distant future, we will see the bribery and murder of prosecutors, jurors and judges in order to protect drug profits.

When this day comes, the law of the streets will govern and our government will be too weak to regain effective control. The public will cry out, demanding that something be done; it will be more than willing to abandon constitutional liberties in an effort to confront and control the drug trade. Given the sorry state of our present political leadership, there is little hope that our future political leaders would resist the sacrifice of civil liberties to the desperation fostered by the pain and ravages of the drug trade. The time to confront and control the drug trade is now.

The drug trade cannot be controlled without jailing the importer-wholesalers and their professional cadre, just as street-level retail dealers and users are jailed. The so-called ''war on drugs'' is nothing more than a political illusion that mollifies an uninformed public even as large segments of our society are terrorized by crime and corruption and as respect for our institutions is being weakened.

A legitimate war on drugs will require simultaneous fighting on two fronts: the importer-wholesaler supply side, and the demand side. We have not seriously warred against either side. Through education, we can lower the demand for drugs. By jailing importer-wholesaler drug dealers, we can reduce the drug supply. Until society engages in a drug war on these two fronts, the so-called ''war on drugs'' will remain a convenient political illusion and the country will continue to pay the deathly price.

On May 11, 1992, I asked the Baltimore city grand jury to investigate why the importer-wholesaler drug dealers were not being pursued and prosecuted. It is my fervent hope that the grand jury's investigation and public report will be a call for action before it is too late.

Kenneth Lavon Johnson is a judge of the Circuit Court of Baltimore City.

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