Schmoke Continues Call for National Drug Reform

November 21, 1993|By SANDY BANISKY

Over and over and over, to anyone who will listen, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke says the national government has got to reform its drug policies. He repeated that almost hourly at last week's international drug policy conference, which drew 80 guests from 20 countries to the Inner Harbor.

The war on drugs is lost, Mr. Schmoke says, and some cities want to declare a truce.

Washington has to stop trying to beat the problem with police and prison, he believes. Only relaxed drug laws -- laws that promote medical treatment for users while jailing traffickers -- will reduce the harm that drugs do to addicts and to society.

But there's a problem: The Clinton administration doesn't agree.

It sent R. Grant Smith, an assistant secretary of state for international narcotics matters, to Baltimore to tell the conference participants bluntly that the government intends to keep most of its drug-abuse funds in law enforcement and interdiction. It believes in expanding treatment, Mr. Smith said, but it has no plans to ease drug laws.

Last spring, Mr. Schmoke asked Attorney General Janet Reno to name a national commission to study drug reform. She said no.

And five years into his campaign for drug reform, Mr. Schmoke has little to show for his efforts -- except for some new outreach programs to addicts and a stack of press clippings about his proselytizing to community groups and congressional panels.

On Baltimore's streets, the problems of drug abuse -- violent crime, addiction, disease -- continue unabated, even though Mr. Schmoke was hailed at the conference as "the most important drug-policy pioneer now in office."

There was a moment at the two-day conference that pointed up how little of Mr. Schmoke's philosophy has been translated into action.

An aide to the mayor of New Orleans took the microphone to ask Mr. Schmoke to discuss the advances he's made in Baltimore.

Mr. Schmoke, unable to cite any new programs he's begun or any drug reforms he's instituted, simply held up a buff-colored booklet. It was the final report of his panel on drug-policy reform, which he commissioned earlier this year to study the issue.

That panel, which ended its work in September, made a series of recommendations -- none of them yet implemented. Among them: Begin a needle-exchange program to slow the spread of AIDS; expand treatment programs for addicts; make methadone more available; create a drug court to steer users into treatment instead of jail; and keep talking about the failure of national drug policies.

But that's the fruit of five years of effort -- a series of recommendations and a plan, which still has to make its way through the legislature, to start a pilot needle-exchange program early next year.

"I must admit," Mr. Schmoke told the visitor from New Orleans, "that as a practical matter our resources have gone primarily in reacting to the war on drugs" -- into fighting drug-related crime and jailing drug users instead of into treatment.

Municipal officials from other countries agree: If the federal government won't go along, "the most a municipal drug policy can do is reduce the suffering" that repressive national policies cause, said Margarethe Nimsch, a city council member from Frankfurt, Germany.

"There never will be a drug-free America or a drug-free Australia or a drug-free Italy or a drug-free anywhere," said Michael Moore, an elected official from Canberra, Australia, who came to Baltimore for the meeting. "To think there can be is naive."

With the belief that society will always have to tolerate some level of drug use, cities in Australia and Europe have been trying new policies. In Canberra, Mr. Moore said, possession of small amounts of marijuana gets you a ticket, just like a traffic ticket. In Franfurt, addicts get clean needles, meals and shelter. In Rotterdam, the drug policies are administered by the department of public health.

Officials from those cities say the policies are humane, logical and effective in bringing addicts into treatment and reducing deaths and crime.

But the magnitude of the drug problem in American cities is far greater than in most European cities.

Amsterdam, for example, with a population of about 750,000, has about 7,000 drug addicts, down from 11,000 a few years ago. Baltimore, with about the same population, has more than 35,000 addicts, many of them addicted to both heroin and cocaine.

And Baltimore has guns -- a plague that most European cities don't have and don't understand.

Still, Mr. Schmoke and other leaders of American cities believe more progressive policies can have an effect. New Haven, for example, has begun a needle-exchange program that it says has lowered the spread of the AIDS virus, brought more addicts into treatment and lowered the crime rate.

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