Taking the profit out of drugs

September 02, 1992

More than four years ago, newly elected Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke caused a storm of controversy by calling for decriminalization of certain drugs as a means of controlling them.

"Decriminalization would take the profit out of drugs and greatly reduce, if not eliminate, the drug-related violence that is currently plaguing our streets," wrote Mr. Schmoke, a former prosecutor. "Decriminalization will not solve this country's drug abuse problem, but it could solve our most intractable crime problem."

This newspaper did not endorse Mr. Schmoke's idea. Too many questions needed to be answered -- and still do. However, the epidemic of drug-driven violence has become so destructive throughout the nation that the mayor's arguments are becoming more and more persuasive. They deserve a new examination and hearing.

Baltimore has been particularly hard hit by the prevalence of illegal drugs. Shootouts among drug dealers have claimed a terrifying toll of innocent bystanders so far this year. Whole neighborhoods have turned into zones of terror where residents do not dare to leave their houses at night. Prosecutors talk about a lost generation of children.

According to a report by Scott Shane in The Sunday Sun, the drug trade has transformed juvenile crime, luring huge numbers of children into law breaking, spawning an epidemic of gun violence and paralyzing courts and counseling programs.

"The drug corners have become an often irresistible alternative to school and to legitimate work, encouraging kids to drop out and scorn low-wage jobs," Mr. Shane wrote. "In some families, drug money has turned the tables in economic relations between children and adults, who depend on handouts from flush young dealers."

In sporadic raids, most big-time operators seem to escape unscathed. Those caught are usually small fry, disproportionately poor and black. A recent survey by a organization seeking alternatives to prisons suggests that 56 percent of young black males in Baltimore are in trouble with the law on any given day -- one third for drug offenses.

If the war on drugs is not being won, realistic alternatives must be explored -- including the decriminalization of certain drugs. If profits are taken out of drug dealing, perhaps fewer juveniles would be lured into crime and more treatment could be provided for addicts.

There is no better time for this debate than a presidential campaign. To succeed, any decriminalization experiment would have to be nationwide in scope and not just isolated to some cities or states. Imagination and courage are needed to squelch the drug curse, which is so corrosive that unless it is dealt with soon, it will overwhelm America.

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