What war on drugs?

Gregory P. Kane

July 08, 1992|By Gregory P. Kane

NACHOSA Harper, a 19-year-old resident of Gaithersburg, is in a state of high dudgeon. Four years ago her family moved from the war zone that drug dealers have made of Baltimore's Park Heights. Now the drug trade has reared its insidious head in Gaithersburg.

But it's not the drug dealers who especially gall Ms. Harper. It's the complicity in the drug trade of legitimate business people who knowingly do business with drug dealers. Car dealers and electronic pager companies especially draw her ire.

"How can these people sell cars and pagers to young black men who show no proof of gainful employment?" she asked me in a recent phone conversation. "Doesn't it occur to them that they might be selling to drug dealers and indirectly aiding and abetting the drug trade?"

Perhaps most galling to Ms. Harper is that drug dealers who are arrested with pagers and have them confiscated by the police are soon on the streets again -- with more pagers. The pager companies, she charges, have some kind of insurance coverage that allows for easy replacement.

Nachosa Harper, welcome to the real world of America's "war" on drugs. The real world contrasts starkly with the fantasy world of that war. In the fantasy world, we have macho announcements from politicians about getting tough on crime and giving drug dealers the death penalty. We have the noble phrases -- "just say no" -- as if that's easy in a society that may be the most hedonistic that ever existed. And we have those sermonizing, moralistic public service announcements warning us of the evils of getting high.

But in the real world of the war on drugs, what has not been said overtly but is hinted and implied almost daily through deeds, is this: There is no war on drugs. There is no war on drugs because street-level drug dealers aren't the only ones who make money from the drug trade.

There are the importer-wholesaler drug dealers who, according to Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Kenneth Lavon Johnson, are "major criminals, usually white, [who] go undetected and unindicted."

There are the lawyers who get rich keeping sorry lots of dealers out of jail.

And there are the legitimate businesses that get their cut: the banks that launder drug money, the car dealers and pager companies, the clothing and athletic shoe stores. All the folks in these businesses might not weep if drug dealing ended today. But they wouldn't leap for joy either. There will be no war on drugs until there is a discernible profit to ending the drug trade.

That is a cynical, ruthless assessment, but one not without a precedent in history. A century and a half ago, the country was unable or unwilling to halt dealers who profited from the human misery of another illegal traffic -- the slave trade.

Outlawed by Congress in 1808, the trade continued to flourish well into the 19th century. The famous clipper ships built in Baltimore at Fells Point were designed to be fast enough to outrun British blockades set up to curb the slave trade. Historian Dickson J. Preston says that the "shipbuilding that sustained the Fells Point economy through the 1830s went in large part to supply an illegal and officially condemned market." The profits, Mr. Preston adds, "were enormous."

As the country expanded westward, the wage-labor economy of the industrialized North clashed with the slave-labor economy of the agrarian South in the struggle over whether new states would be slave or free. It took four years of bloody, terrifying civil war with its enormous toll in human lives and drastic curtailment of civil liberties to end slavery and the slave trade. But the cause was not strictly a moral one. It was the clash of two economic systems -- wage-labor profits vs. slave-labor and slave-trade profits.

Unfortunately, there is no "clash of economies" where drug trafficking is concerned, only boodles of money to be made and plenty of people willing to snatch it up. That's probably why Mayor Schmoke, whose office Nachosa Harper phoned in her anger, has suggested at least considering the legalization of drugs.

Mr. Schmoke is the only politician in the country honest enough to admit that there is no real war on drugs. For the real war to start, the drug trade will have to ravage Gaithersburg and the rest of suburban America the way it has done Park Heights.

The body count in suburbia will have to get as high as it is in our inner cities. Only when we all feel threatened enough will we abandon the fantasy war for the real one.

Gregory P. Kane writes from Baltimore.

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