Candidate speaks truths about war on drugs

January 17, 2002|By Michael Olesker

IT WAS LOVELY to see A. Robert Kaufman the other morning. He showed up at North Avenue and Rosedale and about 15 guys, who were out there either selling dope or basking in the delightful arctic winds, immediately vacated the corner. It's hard to know why. Kaufman doesn't want to put them in jail. He just wants to put them out of business.

There is a distinction, and it's the basis of Kaufman's latest plunge into his familiar realm of sheer political futility. This time, he's running for Congress, aiming for Elijah Cummings' seat. Permit Kaufman this much: He gives himself no shot at winning. But that's never his point.

He just wants to toss a little provocation our way. Chances are we will not listen, because Kaufman, 71, has about a four-decade history around here of running fabulous losing causes. Once, long ago, trying to preach socialism outside a high school, he was crammed into a trash can. Once, he was pelted by snowballs. He has lost not only quite a few political races, but sometimes his sense of public dignity.

This is a shame, for Kaufman is part of the great unruly noise of America. Agree with him or not, he speaks some uncomfortable truths. On Tuesday, the day he went to North and Rosedale to conduct a news conference, an army of two reporters showed up, plus retired attorney Leonard Kerpelman, who is now shooting videos for a cable news operation.

As Kaufman spoke, the morning newspaper carried a front-page story about the 4-month-old war on terrorism taking the government's attention away from its 40-year so-called war on drugs.

"Look at this," Kaufman said, pointing to a nearby building on North Avenue. "Remember when this was a movie theater?"

He turned to his friend Gary Nelson, an emergency vehicle driver for the Baltimore Fire Department. Kaufman has lived in this neighborhood, at the western tip of North Avenue, for 29 years. Nelson lived here, on and off, for more than 20 years. They looked up and down the street now, eyeing countless buildings either boarded up, battered beyond redemption, or protected by iron bars over windows and doors.

"Over here," said Nelson, "was the Walbrook Theater."

"And over here," said Kaufman, "the Windsor and the Hilton theaters. And the bowling alley was over there."

Gone now, all gone.

And everybody knows why -- every politician, every cop on the beat, everybody who ever lived in the area and imagined the good life and saw it slip away behind empty talk of the utterly futile, utterly endless battle against narcotics traffic that has wiped out families, and entire neighborhoods, and a couple of generations of the formerly hopeful.

"Elijah Cummings," Kaufman said now, referring to the man he will challenge, "is one of the best people in Congress. I have no illusions of defeating him, just debating him. His Achilles heel is that he supports the war on drugs, which is self-defeating and murderous."

If this sounds contradictory, read on.

"The war on drugs," said Kaufman, "has given us poverty, the highest murder rate in the western world, and unspeakable municipal decay. The answer to this is simple: Take the profit out of drugs. That doesn't mean decriminalize it. If you treat it as a health problem, you won't have people selling it on the street, so you won't have people committing that criminal act."

Kaufman is not the first to say such a thing. Kurt Schmoke said it years ago, and heard himself shouted down so ferociously that his voice first turned timid and then nearly silent. The clamor was a direct measure of the country's desire to continue its endless failed drug war.

"What we have to have," Kaufman said, "is public health clinics where addicts can get the drugs they need. At nominal cost. You do that, and the very next day, the dealers on this corner" -- he pointed across North Avenue, where all 15 guys once cluttered on the corner of Rosedale had now vanished, perhaps at the sight of Kerpelman's video camera -- "those dealers would have nothing to sell and no reason to shoot anybody, and addicts would have no reason to steal, no reason to use dirty needles and spread AIDS, and there would be no financial incentive to addict a whole new generation of young people, and no need for vast expenditures on insurance and locks and burglar alarms."

Is this a perfect plan? Hell, no. It's a terrible, terrifying notion, the thought that any government might contribute to the zombification of human beings. But they're already zombified, and taking it out on everyone around them despite 40 years of legal and police and political efforts to make it stop.

"We have to take the profits out of it to make it stop," Kaufman said. "Until we do that, we lose. Everybody loses, except the banks that are laundering the drug money, and the political people getting laundered bribes, and the dealers raking in the cash."

As Kaufman stood there in the morning chill on North Avenue, two things happened. An ambulance raced down North Avenue, siren blaring. "Who got shot this time?" somebody asked. And those dealers on the corner slowly began to reassemble -- followed, a few moments later, by a couple of uniformed cops -- leading those on the corner to leave again, at least until the heat was off.

It's a hell of a way for any neighborhood to exist, and it's the thing that has motivated Kaufman to run for office once again. He does not run to win; he never does. He runs because he is, in the fullest sense, a citizen: cranky, ticked-off, full of belief in his own contrary points of view -- and, ultimately, so in love with the notion of a free society that he honors it by speaking uncomfortable ideas to people who would rather huddle behind locked doors and hope for some miracle to make the world safe again.

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