Treating Drugs as a Public Health Problem Letter to the Drug Czar

September 27, 1992

With drugs and drug-related violence major problems i Baltimore, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke wrote to Bob Martinez, the federal "drug czar," elaborating on his position that drugs need to be dealt with as a public health problem. Here is the text of his letter, dated September 11:

Dear Director Martinez:

I welcome your invitation to offer new ideas about the future direction of our national drug control policy. The need for such ideas is especially apparent to me today with the release of a new report by the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives showing that in Baltimore 56 percent of black males between the ages of 18 and 35 are being pursued by, or under the supervision of, the criminal justice system. The report lays this tragic finding unambiguously on the door step of the war on drugs. It says, and I agree, that we're spending too much time and money incarcerating African American men and not enough time and money educating them.

The NCIA study confirms my long-held view that having law enforcement rather than public health officials in charge of the fight against drug addiction is a mistake. Not because law enforcement officials lack commitment, but because they lack, and will continue to lack, success. Keep in mind that the burden of drug-related crime and AIDS falls most heavily on local government and the communities we're charged with protecting. do not have the luxury of pursuing failed policies in the hope that they might one day work. In Baltimore and other cities, crime and AIDS are stealing young lives, crippling the criminal justice system, and turning our neighborhoods into places of fear, not hope. To put an end to this grim picture, we must have a new public health strategy to fight drug abuse -- and the resources to carry it out.

Baltimore offers a typical profile of the growing menace of drug-related crime in cities. In 1991 Baltimore City police made over 17,000 narcotic arrests. In the same year, 46.7 percent of the 304 homicides were drug-related, up from 22.1 percent in 1987. And as with most other communities, the vast majority of drug charges -- 85 percent in the first half of 1992 -- were for heroin and cocaine or their derivatives. These numbers do not support recent assertions by federal officials that we are winning the war on drugs. In Baltimore there is no shortage of drugs, no shortage of demand, and no shortage of drug-related crime victimizing children and families who are otherwise trying to lead stable lives.

Baltimore City does not have the law enforcement resources that are needed to cause a sharp reversal in the level and intensity of drug activity in our neighborhoods -- even if law enforcement was the primary solution to this problem. Nevertheless, I want to share with you what we're doing with respect to law enforcement so that you know we take the matter of drug-related crime very seriously.

The Baltimore City Police Department considers stopping major drug trafficking and street level sales to be among its top priorities. To that end, the Department is working closely with federal and state drug enforcement agencies to target violent offenders, capture illegal guns, seize assets and slow the flow of drugs into our neighborhoods. We are also moving expeditiously to a community policing structure that will put more police in the neighborhoods. This foot patrol presence will ease fears, discourage "open air" drug sales, and give young people positive role models. These changes, along with our request to the

Justice Department for Weed and Seed designation, a special ** grant from the State Legislature to fight violent crime, and the hiring of more police officers demonstrate our determination to put all the resources practicable into combating drug-related crime.

Unfortunately, drugs do not lend themselves to the same kind of law enforcement model as, for example, bank robberies. Drug addiction in the view of the AMA, and many law enforcement officials dating back to the early part of this century, is a disease to be treated, not a crime to be prosecuted. Baltimore is struggling to provide that treatment. But the number of addicts needing help simply dwarfs our treatment resources. The City has over 34,000 heroin and cocaine addicts but only 5,362 treatment slots, which includes slots for alcohol abuse. This imbalance is an ongoing tragedy for both the addicts and the City. As thousands of addicts go untreated, they seek drugs from a violent criminal underground whose sole concern is the maintenance of their illegal profits.

As for AIDS, it has opened a window on the long-standing connection between drugs and public health. Just last year, the National Commission on AIDS characterized the failure of national policy to take into account the link between AIDS and drug abuse as "bewildering and tragic."

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