Decriminalize drugs, local NAACP says City chapter cites 'failed policy'

July 31, 1993|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer Staff writer Sandy Banisky contributed to this article.

Declaring the war on drugs a blatant failure, the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has passed a resolution calling for the decriminalization of illegal drugs.

The decision launches the NAACP into the middle of an emotional, often hostile national debate on how best to address the nation's chronic drug epidemic. And it moves the local group into line with Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who advocates major shifts in government's approach to the drug issue.

"The resolution calls for movement toward treating drug abuse as

a health issue and less of a crime issue. It's controversial, but we have to start discussing it," said George N. Buntin Jr., executive director of the local chapter of the civil rights group. "The whole policy we have now is a failure and a waste of billions of dollars. It makes no sense to stay with failed policy."

Mr. Buntin said there had been no plans to announce the policy until the NAACP could schedule neighborhood meetings on the issue, but "it got out of the bag" when a board member let the news slip this week during a television interview on another subject.

"Our crime committee came up with a resolution after our crime summit last fall to decriminalize drugs and the board debated it for two or three months, redrafted it and approved it," Mr. Buntin said.

"Our plan is to take it to our state convention in October, to our regional convention in March and to our national convention next July. To the best of my knowledge, there has not been [NAACP] discussion like this at the national level. I think we're the first chapter to take such a position."

Don J. Rojas, a spokesman for the national NAACP office, which has its headquarters in Baltimore, had no comment. "We don't have a national position on this question," Mr. Rojas said yesterday. "It's a local branch resolution."

In 1988, Mayor Schmoke called for a "national debate" on the decriminalization of drugs. The mayor has since appeared before a congressional committee and spoken around the country about the failure of the nation's war on drugs, bringing swift and angry criticism.

Today, Mr. Schmoke has refined his position, coining the term "medicalization" to emphasize his belief that drug abuse can be more successfully treated as a health problem. Drugs would remain illegal, but people arrested for possessing them would be directed to treatment programs that might even offer addicts maintenance levels of such hard drugs as heroin and cocaine.

Last night, a spokesman for the vacationing Mr. Schmoke said: "I am sure that the mayor will be pleased to hear that more voices are being added to the call for a more rational approach to our nation's drug problem. He would welcome the local NAACP's call for movement toward the medicalization of our drug abuse problem."

Sam Ringgold, a city police spokesman, said police commissioner Edward Woods was unaware of the NAACP resolution. While Commissioner Woods favors more emphasis on drug treatment, "he doesn't see withdrawing law enforcement as a component of the war on drugs," Mr. Ringgold said.

But mere decriminalization, according to Michael M. Gimbel, director of the Baltimore County Office of Substance Abuse, would only create a larger population of addicts committing more crime.

"What surprised me most about NAACP calling for decriminalization is that it would probably affect the African-American community more than anybody. Who is to say that the money saved for treatment is going to go into African-American communities?" said Mr. Gimbel, a recovered addict who gives anti-drug talks in schools.

"The call for decriminalization comes from frustration and a lack of understanding of the addict. Are we going to decriminalize PCP? Crack cocaine? Are you going to give cocaine to somebody once a day? Twice a day? It's a mess."

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