No time for demagogy on drugs Bell's bluster: City can't afford political rhetoric that stands in the way of pragmatism.

April 05, 1996

FIGHTING THE DRUG WAR may be hard for those in the trenches. But it's easy for the politician-generals. They get cheers every time they scream "lock 'em up." If that were the solution, Baltimore would have no drug problem. Nearly 4,000 drug arrests occur each year in this city. So many arrests occur that the court dockets are backed up and the prisons are overflowing.

Nonetheless, City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III felt it necessary to lecture police Chief Thomas C. Frazier during his reappointment hearing on the need for a "zero tolerance" drug policy. Zero tolerance sure sounds good to people tired of being the victims of crackheads and heroin addicts who will steal anything to get the cash for their next fix. But zero tolerance won't work.

There's no way to catch all 50,000 addicts in this city while they're in the act of committing a crime; no way to catch all the drug dealers when they're preying on the addicts' weakness. There's no place to put them all if you could catch them. The public would be better served by leadership that eschews catchy slogans and looks at real solutions to drug abuse, solutions that out of necessity include some tolerance.

Society should tolerate those addicts who can and want to be saved. It can do that by making sure there are enough drug treatment slots available for them. Successful treatment will dwindle the ranks of addicts, and the dealers who depend on their trade. Mr. Frazier knows that. He told the council that the drug war in part requires a medical solution. An ad hoc citizens committee that includes Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is also looking into ways to increase this city's drug treatment opportunities.

The council needs to get on board. One proposal before the committee that the council should examine would allow public health clinics and private physicians to prescribe methadone without their offices being zoned as drug treatment centers. If such legislation is written to preserve the integrity of residential neighborhoods, it could dramatically increase the number of drug treatment slots in the city.

Baltimore must do that. Chief Frazier must aggressively pursue all criminals, especially the wholesalers bringing drugs into this city. But drug crimes won't stop until Baltimore successfully treats the illness that is their genesis.

Pub Date: 4/05/96

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