Decriminalization reconsidered

January 18, 1993

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's proposal to discuss the decriminalization of drugs as a way of reducing violent, drug-related crime fell on deaf ears when it was first broached in 1988. But with Baltimore experiencing a record homicide epidemic, and the in-coming Clinton administration planning to shift the federal focus away from catching drug smugglers and dealers to treating those who use drugs, the idea may merit a second look.

Mr. Schmoke's concept was to treat drug abuse as a public health problem rather than a criminal justice issue. He argued that making drugs legally available to addicts in prescription form would take most of the profits out of the illegal drug trade, alleviating much of the crime associated with it.

Similar approaches have produced remarkable results in Liverpool, England, where Britain's National Health Service maintains addicts on their drug of choice through prescriptions written by NHS doctors that can be filled at any pharmacy.

The British approach is primarily a maintenance effort -- it doesn't try to break the addict's craving. Yet it has significantly reduced drug-related crime and enabled addicts to live reasonably productive lives without resorting to a life of crime to support their habits.

Such programs raise a troubling moral dilemma: Either punish behavior that -- in the case of addicts at least -- people ultimately may have little control over, or sanction use of something so admittedly dangerous it must be strictly regulated.

The former implies a willingness to tolerate the inevitable violence and crime stemming from the tremendous demand for illegal drugs -- as witnessed by the record number of homicides in Baltimore. But the latter risks encouraging addiction by making drugs easier to get. Moreover, many people are averse to making the state party to the individual's self-destructive behavior.

Yet Britain's experience seems to suggest that, on balance, the public health approach to drug abuse has been more successful than the U.S.- style law-enforcement model. By eliminating drug profits, officials have undercut the drug dealer as the primary recruiter of new addicts. That, coupled with vigorous drug-education and prevention campaigns, has produced a gradual but steady decline in the number of addicts, with a consequent decline in demand for illegal drugs.

America's vaunted "war on drugs" clearly has been a failure. The British, at least, have found it both more humane and less socially destructive to maintain addicts legally than to allow the drug epidemic to spin entirely out of control. Their example offers an alternative that, sooner or later, this country ought to consider.

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