The drug wars go on

January 05, 1995

City residents breathed a sigh of relief after reading a recent Sunday Sun account of the demise of "Strong as Steel," the murderous gang of thugs who terrorized West Baltimore from the early 1990s until last year, when its ringleaders were finally brought to justice. Heartening as it is to see the last of these miscreants, the story is a cautionary tale about the intractability of a national drug epidemic that shows no signs of abating.

In its heyday, "Strong as Steel" took in $68,000 a day and employed 30 to 40 people, making it twice as productive as the city's largest brokerage firm in terms of sales per employee. Its leader, Mumin Sahib Abdullah, enjoyed a high-flying lifestyle of lavish spending, flashly clothes and expensive cars -- financed by thousands of heroin addicts who lined up each day along The Strip, a section of Etting Street where the gang operated. The gang's fortunes began to decline only in 1992, when police clamped down on The Strip. Last year, Abdullah was convicted on federal drug conspiracy charges and sentenced to 50 years in prison.

This might seem like progress -- until one realizes that the thousands of addicts who were "Strong as Steel's" customers are still looking for a fix. And the reality is, most of them still find it. No sooner was "Strong as Steel" off the streets than rivals moved to take its place. The total amount of drugs sold in Baltimore has hardly changed at all.

This suggests that no matter how effective law enforcement is in putting drug dealers behind bars, where they belong, the trade will continue as long as addicts keep driving the market.

Another disturbing item: "Strong as Steel" sold heroin, which in recent years has made a comeback as a drug of choice. Ironically, earlier successes against cocaine dealers have had the unintended effect of making heroin cheaper and purer. As a result, intravenous drug use is again rising.

Recently, Baltimore's City-Wide Coalition proposed establishing a politically independent commission to oversee the distribution of illegal drugs through health clinics for a nominal fee. This goes well beyond Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's call eight years ago to treat drug addiction as a public health problem rather than a criminal justice matter. The coalition believes some sort of decriminalization would help end many of the results of the drug wars, including a skyrocketing murder rate, the need of addicts to steal huge amounts to pay for illegal drugs and the high rate of AIDS infection. There's still tremendous resistance to even talking about such a scheme. But as the sad tale of "Strong as Steel" shows, as vital as effective law enforcement is, the drug problem is not going to be solved simply by putting people behind bars.

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