80 people try to slay a monster Drug conference draws participants from 18 countries

November 17, 1993|By Richard O'Mara and Sandy Banisky | Richard O'Mara and Sandy Banisky,Staff Writers

They all came to talk about drugs, and in the end they talked about money.

About 80 politicians, police officials and drug-treatment experts from 18 countries came to Baltimore yesterday for the International Network of Cities on Drug Policy Conference. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke had organized the two-day meeting to share ideas with other cities on attacking drug problems.

Money, the participants agreed, is the engine of the illegal industry. Dealers make big profits as they move drugs into black markets. Governments are compelled to spend money on policing and jails. And few funds are left for treatment.

Some guests called for legalizing drugs. Others called it "de-penalization," de-criminalization or medicalization -- but they all proposed moving away from the old policies stressing police enforcement and interdiction, the war on drugs.

The participants wanted more emphasis on treatment. And they all wanted to find some way to turn off the monster money machine that the cocaine business has become.

For the Colombians, that goal is a matter of national life or death.

"We are almost losing our country," said Colombian Sen. Enrique Gomez. "We have lost [through assassinations] our entire Supreme Court. Many judges have been killed. This is a lost battle. Drug abuse is actually served by repression."

Colombia's attorney general, Gustavo de Greiff Restrepo, said he believes that legalization of drugs would cut black market demand for them. "We put Pablo Escobar [Colombia's most infamous drug kingpin] in jail. Nothing happened. Fighting drug trafficking is a lost cause," he said.

Dr. de Greiff said that a kilo of cocaine costs $50 to manufacture in Colombia, and sells for about $5,000 in New York. "With profits like that, somebody will always be greedy or crazy enough to do the business," he said.

That price differentiation also explained why Colombia itself is not afflicted by the kind of widespread cocaine abuse that is present in the United States. Colombians are too poor. "Why sell to people with no money?" said Dr. de Greiff.

Philadelphia's deputy mayor, N. John Wilder, said the United States wasted "billions" trying to destroy cocaine in fields in the Andes.

"I think we have wasted an awful lot of money on these operations," Mr. Wilder said.

Mr. Wilder, who said he was opposed to outright legalization of drugs here, urged new emphasis on treatment and education, which he said had been traditionally underfunded. "We need a balanced approach in America," he said.

Dr. John Marks, who runs a treatment center in England, said his budgets for maintenance drugs is under pressure. "Bureaucrats look at the bills for drugs in the clinic and say we got to cut. We look at the old folks' needs. We look at the addicts' needs. The choice is easy."

The conference at the Harbor Court Hotel is the mayor's latest effort to advance his call for national drug reform, a cause he's pushed since 1988, soon after he took office. The mayor believes that American cities can learn from those overseas.

Arnold Trebach, Drug Policy Foundation president, agrees. "We must admit, if we can stand it, that the future of drug policy is to be found in Europe," he told the participants yesterday morning.

Panelists from Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Zurich, Hamburg and Frankfurt told of their successes with "harm reduction," policies that include permitting possession of small amounts of soft drugs, like marijuana and hashish; sales of soft drugs; needle-exchange programs; and an expansion of treatment programs for addicts.

Paul Vasseur, Amsterdam's drug policy coordinator, said that two vans in his city deliver methadone to addicts. And private doctors, as well as clinics, can dispense methadone.

Margarethe Nimsch, a Frankfurt alderman, said that the cities cannot fix all the problems caused by repressive national policies. "The most a municipal drug policy can do is reduce the suffering," she said.

The police in Frankfurt began supporting harm-reduction policies, she said, when the officers realized that they were "doing nothing but administering a revolving door through which drug users repeatedly passed."

Theo Brekelmans, Rotterdam's police commissioner, said his city's policies are not liberal but "pragmatic."

Mr. Schmoke said that most Americans want more jails and more police officers to deal with the crime that the drug trade spawns.

"It is important to remind everyone here," he said, "that the majority of the citizens in the United States of America disagree with everything you've heard this morning on how to approach the drug problem."

The conference, co-sponsored by Mr. Schmoke and the Washington-based Drug Policy Foundation, is costing $150,000 and is being paid for by four grants, including one from Baltimore businessman Willard Hackerman. It continues today.

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