Mayor is right: War on drugs is a huge failure

MICHAEL OLESKER

October 15, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Have you heard the one about the drug czar and the American cities? This one'll kill you. In fact, it's already killing the cities. The punch line involves Bob Martinez telling Kurt Schmoke to buzz off.

Martinez is the U.S. drug czar. "Czar" is an ancient Russian word meaning, "If you insist on being logical, I insist on not listening to you." Schmoke, the mayor of Baltimore, has heard this before.

About a month ago, Schmoke sent a letter to Martinez which read like a man trying not to be shoved inside a coffin. It said the war against drugs is a failure and is ending the life of places like Baltimore. A week later, Martinez responded, telling Schmoke how "impressive" the drug war actually is and citing various figures indicating the enemy is in retreat.

This is beautiful. In the last week around here, we have a former high school guidance counselor sentenced to prison for conspiring to distribute crack cocaine. A firefighter ironically assigned to the Rescue 1 unit is busted on cocaine distribution charges. The homicide rate, much of it fueled by narcotics, reaches 262 since January.

And Martinez, staring into the face of such routine stories across the whole country, attempts to defend a drug policy that causes a generation to live in fear.

On the east side of this city yesterday, on East Lombard Street near Broadway, came two known cocaine users, off for a day's work: a little shoplifting here, a little housebreaking there. They are the predators who make this country cringe.

"Gotta make a living," said the woman, formerly a nurse's assistant, running a hand through dirty blond hair.

"How many times a day do you put a needle in your arm?" they were asked now.

"Me?" said the man, shifting uneasily. "No more than three or four times a day."

"That's not so much."

"It is," he said, "when it's a hundred dollars a pop."

The American drug czar takes pains to say how great the effort, how large the sums of money spent in the narcotics struggle. In the process, he makes the Schmoke case: all the money in the world is not working.

In the last four years, with $45 billion being spent, the drug czar's own people admit that the traffic flows almost unabated. Interdiction is cutting off only 5 percent to 15 percent of the drugs sent to this country.

Martinez, echoing the White House, says we have to get tougher. Here's the problem: How much tougher can we get? A year ago in Baltimore, the police made 17,000 narcotics arrests. There is no longer any place to put the violators, and so the legal system puffs up its chest to frighten people, but no one notices any longer. It's all empty gesture now.

"Violent crime is a constant reminder that national drug policy fosters many things, but peace is not one of them," Schmoke wrote Martinez, citing the usual chilling crime figures.

"As for the values drug dealers impart: avarice, arrogance and coercion are being taught every day to children whose schools are underfunded because billions of dollars are being diverted to the war on drugs.''

What the mayor of Baltimore wants is this: an approach to narcotics emphasizing it is a disease to be treated, more than a crime to be prosecuted.

When he first brought this up maybe three years ago, everyone got hysterical and drowned out his words. The drug czar Martinez would continue to do this. In the process, all we lose are lives, and time, and perspective.

In the city of Baltimore, there are an estimated 34,000 heroin and cocaine addicts. With all the great national resources, and the billions being poured into the drug fight, there are just 5,362 treatment slots -- which include slots for alcohol abuse. In other words, even those wishing to ditch their habits have no place to find help.

Is this an endorsement of decriminalization? Nope, just a suggestion we stop shouting at Kurt Schmoke and start talking maturely about a change of plans. The current ones aren't working.

It's frightening to think of this country legitimizing any intake of drugs, to imagine a nation of narcotized zombies lining up for their daily fixes, having children, driving the streets.

But they're already doing that, by the tens of thousands. And, in the current war, they've taken the rest of us hostage. The White House says good things are happening. The drug czar urges patience. We're two decades into a narcotics plague, and any official who says this approach is working is a a liar.

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