Schmoke Strategies in the Drug War

September 11, 1993

For five years, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has been urging a national debate on drugs. He contends that after decades of trying to control drugs, America is sinking into a quicksand of corruption and societal breakdown that has made narcotics more readily available than ever before.

Meanwhile, the incredible profits of trafficking and retailing have introduced unprecedented violence and viciousness into urban American life. Neighborhoods are turning into killing fields. Innocent lives are torn asunder.

Early on, Mr. Schmoke urged the nation to consider the legalization or decriminalization of certain drugs. The trouble was many people were not sure they knew what he was talking about. Moreover, the changes he seemed to suggest involved shifts in national policy beyond his control.

The Schmoke administration is now considering an alternate strategy. In essence, it wants to quit the conventional drug war by conceding publicly that it is unrealistic for Baltimore City to expect to eliminate drug use. Instead, the city ought to concentrate its efforts on trying to diminish the harm of drugs while working to reduce demand for them.

This refocusing of the city's anti-drug policy is contained in a draft report by the 17-member Mayor's Working Group on Drug Policy Reform. Its members recommend citywide methadone maintenance of heroin addicts; a needle-exchange program to stem the spread of the AIDS virus, and shifting the emphasis in police arrest policies from the apprehension of nonviolent drug users to grabbing violent offenders and drug traffickers.

They also recommend that a "drug court" be set up to steer nonviolent drug users to long-term treatment, which would require better training for primary-care doctors, nurses and pharmacists, plus stepped-up education efforts.

"I wanted to see what a local government could do to change policy without waiting for major changes in national policies -- how we could change the emphasis to a public health approach while we're waiting for the federal government," Mr. Schmoke explained.

To many Marylanders these proposals are nothing but heresy. Opponents of methadone maintenance argue, for example, that such an approach -- while cheap in dollar terms -- is harmful to addicts because it only changes their dependency from one drug to another.

The Schmoke panel clearly offers no ultimate solutions. It does not materially reduce crime-spawning profits in the drug trade as decriminalization might do. The plan should be seen only as an effort to control some of the local damage of a drug war that is steadily eroding security and civility in American life.

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