Grand jury to look at possibility of legalizing drugs

September 13, 1994|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph P. McCurdy Jr. didn't get an answer the last time he asked a city grand jury for its thoughts on drug decriminalization, so he's asking again.

"Many of us feel that the war on drugs has not succeeded, that we are losing ground with each passing day, that we are wasting resources and that we have to look at this problem anew from a more realistic point of view," the judge yesterday told grand jurors who were then sworn in to begin a four-month term. "My charge to you today is that you look into the issue and determine what recommendations, if any, you can make to deal with the drug trade . . . through the criminal justice system or by responsible legalization."

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who has called for a national debate on the issue, said he is eager to share his views with the panel.

"If there is going to be major change, it will have to happen in the U.S. Congress, but the Congress is unlikely to debate it unless citizens are talking about the need for a change," the mayor said through a spokesman. "So I see this as a very important step and one that may be followed by grand juries around the country."

In Baltimore, the grand jury returns indictments when finding evidence that a suspect committed a felony, and it reports on conditions in correctional facilities in the city. In the past few years, the 23-member panels also have filed reports on subjects ranging from the status of public education in Baltimore to handgun proliferation on city streets to an "underground economy" fed by drug proceeds.

Aside from a controversial grand jury report last year that alleged the city's war on drugs is politically influenced by some members of the police department and state's attorney's office -- allegations that were found by a special prosecutor to be without merit -- the grand jury reports have not attracted wide attention or led to sweeping changes, said Joseph H.H. Kaplan, administrative judge of the city circuit court.

Judge Kaplan said, however, that a citizens' report on decriminalization has the potential to carry more influence than prior panels' efforts.

"If their report is responsible and responsive and they come up with recommendations on an important issue like that, it lends very forceful support to that position," Judge Kaplan said.

In 1992, Judge McCurdy asked a grand jury to consider a number of drug-related issues. The grand jury provided recommendations on drug treatment, but on decriminalization, the panel wrote: "This issue is certainly beyond our ability to answer. . . . We could offer our individual opinions about the effectiveness of decriminalization, but we feel this would be a waste of time, since as laymen, our opinions are most likely to be ignored."

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