McCain's remarks on city's drug `indifference' refuted

Baltimore officials, experts deny any hands-off policy

February 18, 2000|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Last week, Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain delivered a major policy speech on crime in which he said Baltimore had conducted a "misguided experiment" that effectively legalized drug trafficking in some sections of the city. City officials and specialists on drug issues say no such policy -- informal or otherwise -- has ever existed in Baltimore.

McCain, speaking against the backdrop of a huge American flag to an audience of law enforcement officials in Columbia, S.C., last Tuesday, said: "It is a deadly indifference that nourishes the ill-conceived notion that the war on drugs cannot be won, so it's time to wave the white flag of legalization."

He continued: "Ask the residents in Baltimore on the blocks where drug bazaars were allowed to operate in the open -- a misguided experiment in de facto legalization -- whether we should throw in the towel."

Several current and former city officials contradicted McCain's characterization of Baltimore's drug policy.

"There was never a de facto experiment in legalization in Baltimore," said former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, a Democrat. "I always said to folks that, look, our Police Department will be out here enforcing the law."

McCain campaign officials, standing by the Arizona senator's remarks, said yesterday he had consulted closely with former drug czar William Bennett and former deputy drug czar John Walters on the speech.

"It's easy to quibble over whether Kurt Schmoke gave an order: `Let the open-air markets flourish,' " Walters said. "The fact of the matter is that the amount of enforcement was not what it should have been.

"There's a brute fact here that things got out of control" in Baltimore, said Walters, who served under President George Bush.

For two decades, Baltimore has struggled to confront the widespread use of illegal narcotics in the city. Approximately 60,000 drug addicts are numbered among the city's 645,000 residents.

During the 1990s, the Schmoke administration's response included a controversial needle-exchange program -- an effort to limit the spread of AIDS among heroin addicts who share needles -- and an emphasis on treatment rather than felony prosecution of nonviolent offenders who possess small amounts of drugs.

Over the years, Schmoke has been outspoken on his desire for a national drug policy that reflects more of a public health approach than a criminal justice strategy. In a repudiation of Schmoke, Martin O'Malley pledged during his successful mayoral campaign last year to roust drug dealers from street corners where they openly flouted the law.

Yet city Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson, who held the same post under Schmoke, said the policy differences are ones of emphasis. Police have always enforced the law, Beilenson said: "You almost couldn't arrest more people."

Three independent specialists on drug policy also said McCain's characterization of Baltimore was wide of the mark. Baltimore's experience mirrored drug use in many major American cities, said Jerome H. Jaffe, the director of U.S. anti-drug efforts during the Nixon administration.

McCain's remarks, Jaffe said, "implies that somebody deliberately said it should be allowed."

"That's an inaccuracy," Jaffe said, "but there's a little sand of truth." The Towson resident said the city's response to drug trafficking has been largely ineffective.

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