Continuing his high-profile interest in changing America's drug policies, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has invited mayors from 75 countries to Baltimore for a November conference on new approaches to the international drug crisis.
"This is the first major event of what we hope will be an international network of cities on drug policy," said Kevin B. Zeese, vice president of the Drug Policy Foundation, which is co-sponsoring the event.
The meeting will be another in a series of Mr. Schmoke's public declarations that he believes the country's war on drugs has failed and that new strategies must be found quickly. Beginning in 1988, within months of his inauguration as mayor, Mr. Schmoke shocked even his allies by calling for a national debate on "decriminalizing" drugs -- which he defined as making the drug problem a public-health issue, instead of a criminal-justice problem. Since then, he has testified before congressional committees and spoken around the country about his beliefs.
Last spring, he said he thought the country's opinions on drug policies have changed, as Americans lose faith in the ability of police officers and prisons to control the problem. And he has refined his presentation: Mr. Schmoke no longer talks about "decriminalization" of drugs -- a phrase that critics said evoked images of a drug free-for-all. Instead, the mayor now talks of "medicalization," an approach in which addicts are steered into treatment programs.
Considered the leading Democratic candidate in next year's governor's race, Mr. Schmoke, still undeclared, acknowledges that the drug issue brings him his lowest response on opinion polls.
But Mr. Zeese said yesterday that the drug conference is a show of political wisdom. "He's very smart not to run away from this issue. He's using this to define himself. It shows how far Mayor Schmoke has come to make these ideas acceptable," Mr. Zeese said.
The fact that so many public officials from around the world are interested in attending shows that "these ideas are not so wild and crazy," Mr. Zeese said.
So far, officials from about 30 cities -- including the mayors of San Francisco; Toronto; Oakland and Berkeley, Calif.; and Kallithea, Greece -- have accepted. Vienna, Austria; Geneva; Bologna, Italy; Winnipeg, Manitoba; and San Juan, Puerto Rico are among the cities sending their drug-policy specialists.
"They'll be able to share experiences on new policies that work," Mr. Zeese said. The officials also could devise exchange programs, so that police or health officials from one city could visit counterparts in another to learn new strategies.
The Washington-based Drug Policy Foundation, which studies new approaches to drug-related problems, suggested the conference to Mayor Schmoke last year after talking with representatives of European Cities on Drug Policy.
The Drug Policy Foundation believes that the European group, a coalition that shares information on the problems of addiction, should have an American counterpart with which it could work, Mr. Zeese said.
Mr. Zeese said Mr. Schmoke was "incredibly enthusiastic. He said he'd be happy to have it in Baltimore" and began making plans to invite North and South American officials to meet with Europeans.
Lee Tawney, an assistant to the mayor, said that the meeting's agenda will be defined later, after the list of participants is settled.
Mr. Zeese added that city leaders are more progressive than federal officials on the drug problem because "they have no choice but to face reality." Drugs -- and the attendant problems of crime, poverty and disease -- are damaging cities more each day, Mr. Zeese said. "Mayors have no choice but to be pragmatic."