What if We Gave Help?

January 17, 1994|By TIM BAKER

Go west on Franklin Street. Late on a winter afternoon. To yourleft runs the U.S. 40 expressway -- a barren concrete strip going nowhere.

Turn north on Carey. Or Calhoun. Or Gilmor. Three-story row houses. Many of them empty. Plywood sheets nailed across the doors and windows. Block after block.

Evening falls. The sky blackens. Abandoned buildings loom. The sidewalks change color. Cold. Gray. Grim.

Men in dark coats or jackets stand on corners. In front of barricaded liquor stores. One man, at first. On each corner. Alone. Someone else comes up to him. A furtive exchange. You drive past. The man's hard eyes follow your car. He throws his cigarette in the gutter. But he doesn't move on. He owns this street corner. He owns it even if you're the police.

It grows darker. More men appear. They stand around and talk. Smoke. Drink from bottles in brown paper bags. Small white packets change hands. Later, gunshots toll.

This is one picture of drug abuse in Baltimore. And in America. There are others. Drug addicts jam emergency rooms. Overcrowded courts and prisons. The lights flashing on a police car. A bloody body lying in the street.

Together they present a montage of dismal failure.

National narcotics-control strategies haven't worked. They have xTC all been based entirely on the premise that government can shut off the drug supply to city streets (1) by persuading other countries to cut down on production, (2) by interdicting the flow of drugs into this country, and (3) by prosecuting and imprisoning distributors.

Little has been done to reduce the demand for narcotics. But as long as people on street corners, and elsewhere, want to buy drugs and can find or steal the money to pay for them, someone will somehow find a way to deliver the supply. The ever-creative genius of free-market consumer-oriented capitalism evades law enforcement and treats criminal penalties as another cost of doing business.

Every night a million American street corners mock this country's one-sided approach to our narcotics problem. Yet an almost exclusive reliance on criminal law enforcement remains politically sacrosanct. Last month, for example, the White House immediately disavowed Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders' suggestion that legalization merely be studied. Then last week the Clinton administration announced its own narcotics strategy: reshuffling of old supply-control policies. It will cut back the Reagan-Bush military interdiction programs and instead emphasize eradicating crops abroad and ''destroying narco-trafficking organizations'' at home.

Both of these supply-side strategies have already been tried and failed. What has not been tried, anywhere in America, is a program which emphasizes treatment and the reduction of the demand for drugs.

Baltimore has volunteered. Last fall Mayor Schmoke wrote to President Clinton and asked him to use this city to test the proposition that money invested in treatment can reduce drug addiction and drug-related crime more effectively than money spent on criminal law enforcement. To make sure he had the president's personal attention, the mayor recently handed him a copy of the letter.

Mayor Schmoke's proposal raises a key question for the Clinton administration: Does it have the fortitude to experiment with new narcotics programs which depart from political orthodoxy and which may arouse political controversy?

There's a political risk here. The surgeon general's suggestions last month prompted a barrage of political and editorial criticism. Mayor Schmoke himself is prominently associated with the idea of legalization. But his bold proposal to experiment with a treatment-oriented strategy in Baltimore doesn't involve anything so radical.

He has merely proposed an experimental reversal of the priorities under which this nation has spent 50 times as much money on criminal solutions as it has on treatment. He wants a chance to prove that narcotics is fundamentally a public-health problem rather than a law-enforcement problem. The specifics are simple. By some counts, Baltimore has as many as 60,000 drug addicts. But it only has treatment funds for 5,400. What would happen if most addicts were treated?

As a matter of substance, there is no downside to the mayor's proposal. The narcotics problems on the streets of Baltimore couldn't possibly be any worse than they are now.

Tim Baker's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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