Rethinking the Drug War


June 14, 1993|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Six years ago, when Baltimore's mayor said the unsayable --that America's war on drugs was failing, that we had to think about legalization -- he was scorned.

Today the hot button isn't legalization. Indeed, the ''L'' word is hardly used. Instead, Mayor Schmoke talks almost exclusively about drugs as a public-health problem. European reformers focus on ''harm reduction'' -- conceding some people will use drugs, and that society's first priority has to be to mitigate the fallout.

But the big story is that on both sides of the Atlantic, people are coming around to Kurt Schmoke's view.

President Clinton has appointed as his drug czar, with Cabinet rank, former New York Police Commissioner Lee Brown -- one of America's most progressive law-enforcement officers. Mr. Brown, a community-policing pioneer, says it's time to put treatment and prevention on an equal par with law enforcement -- a dramatic break with the positions of his tough-talking predecessors, William Bennett and Bob Martinez.

Janet Reno, the new attorney general, has openly criticized the Bush administration's emphasis on interdiction of drugs entering the country, saying it stopped only 25 percent of the flow -- only a third of what would be needed to have a measurable impact on drug use.

Ms. Reno favors taking a hard look at the mandatory-sentencing laws that have landed hundreds of thousands of drug users and small-time dealers in prison, at staggering public cost. She wants alternative sentencing and programs to make sure ''that every person in America who wants drug treatment, who's asking for it, gets it.''

With increasing boldness, critics are dissecting and discrediting the country's ''war on drugs.'' ''Our present policy is one of monumental failure,'' says U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet in New York.

''Seventy billion dollars has been spent on the drug war. If you can't succeed with that kind of money, it's obvious you can't win that way,'' says Kevin Zeese, vice president of the Drug Policy Foundation.

Since 1989, more than one million Americans have been incarcerated on drug charges, Judge Sweet notes. The number of cases continues to spiral. Today, 30 million Americans use drugs, 7.5 million are seriously addicted.

''If we were fighting any other war this long, with these results, we would want not only new generals but a new strategy,'' says Mayor Schmoke.

What's more, he adds, today's policy is ''strangling'' the cities. He cites a study showing that on any given day in 1991, 56 percent of young Baltimore black men (aged 18 to 35) were under arrest, incarcerated, on parole or probation -- with drugs involved in all but a small number of the cases. Mr. Schmoke calls the statistic ''devastating and shameful.'' He could add that it comes perilously close to overt racial targeting. By contrast, suburban white drug buyers are arrested far less frequently.

''The use of drugs is not a criminal problem. It is a social problem, and a health problem. By treating it as a criminal-justice problem we are losing the war,'' says Herbert Klein, the Florida judge who fathered Dade County's successful drug program to divert offenders to treatment in place of jail.

Mayor Schmoke suggests we clear our heads by understanding we have three problems -- addiction, crime related to drug trafficking, and AIDS. Addiction and AIDS need to be treated as health problems, and only the trafficking as a crime problem, he says.

Almost no one argues the drug war can ever be won by its two chief tools -- interdicting drugs entering the United States, and tough street-level enforcement. The country seems to be in transition to new approaches.

The easiest change could be federal -- flipping the national government's outlays from 70 percent on enforcement, 30 percent on treatment to precisely the opposite. Drug czar Brown and Attorney General Reno seem almost certain to move in that direction.

But will either Congress or state legislatures be willing to abolish or even relax the mandatory sentencing laws they passed in the hysteria of the '80s, laws that literally doubled our incarceration rate?

The answer here is not so clear. The thoughtless political rhetoric of mandatory sentencing still has an appeal -- even if, ironically, it means we often keep minor drug offenders behind bars while we start releasing truly dangerous criminals too early.

Maybe we'll have the courage to look at successful foreign models, like the Netherlands, where a ''soft policy'' -- decriminalizing marijuana, pushing needle-exchange programs, emphasizing education and prevention in the schools -- seems to be working. Drug use is falling, the population of junkies has stabilized and is aging, and deaths from drug use are falling, says Rotterdam Police Chief R.H. Hessing. And, he adds, the spread of AIDS has slowed.

Some 16 U.S. cities now have needle-exchange programs. In New Haven, Connecticut, two mobile vans cruise neighborhoods where intravenous drug users are concentrated. And the Dade County drug court model is starting to spread to other cities.

If Kurt Schmoke runs for governor next year, drugs and a lot of the subterranean issues -- public health, mandatory sentencing, incarceration rates, inordinate law enforcement on minorities -- will inevitably get top play.

The public needs to think hard about these questions. The Maryland race could be a major first opportunity.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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