City can't retreat in war on drugs

September 22, 2004|By Robert Weiner and Sasha Varghese

REGRETTABLY, Baltimore often has been considered the nation's heroin haven, and it remains among the top heroin-abusing cities. It has among the most hospitalizations, treatment cases and heroin-related crime; 35.8 percent of those arrested last year tested positive for heroin.

From 1994 to 1998, the frequency of drug-related emergency room visits in the Baltimore area was nearly triple the national rate. More Baltimore residents died of drug overdoses (324) than by homicide (309) in 1999. For Baltimore adults, one in every 40 is on probation for a drug offense.

A few years ago, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke advocated legalizing the distribution and use of drugs. The culture of the city was that abuse didn't matter or couldn't be stopped. The attitude and approach of Mr. Schmoke not only failed to curb these exorbitant numbers but made the situation worse.

Here's an example of his give-up approach: "I think that the war on drugs is a domestic Vietnam. And didn't we learn from Vietnam that, at a certain point in the war, we should stop and rethink our strategy, and ask, `Why are we here?'"

But asking why you are fighting against the worst drug abuse rates in the nation isn't quite the same as a debate about foreign policy priorities. In drug abuse, giving up means allowing addiction to skyrocket, and it did. As NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, from Baltimore, put it in an interview at the Democratic National Convention, "There was no plan, nothing" from Mr. Schmoke in dealing with drug abuse.

In contrast, over the last three years, Baltimore has ranked No. 1 in the nation for improvement in reducing heroin abuse -- fostering a 42.5 percent drop in heroin-related emergency room admissions, according to the Department of Health and Human Services' Drug Abuse Warning Network. Last year, Baltimore was second only to Dallas in reduction of heroin emergency room cases. Medical and criminal incidents related to heroin have been slashed dramatically.

The change may be a result of a change in the message, such as when Mayor Martin O'Malley stressed at the Democratic convention, "Drugs are dangerous and a threat to our citizens, our city, our health, and the future of our children."

In Baltimore, providing treatment instead of debating legalization has properly become the focal point of the antidrug attack. The city spent $62 million for drug treatment in 2003 -- up from a mere $29 million in 1999 -- and created five new treatment facilities. Former U.S. drug czar Barry R. McCaffrey made numerous visits to Baltimore's drug-affected areas and met with officials and residents. The current drug policy director, John P. Walters, visited in June.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings also has been a fervent activist in the war on drugs. A resident of Baltimore's center city, which is surrounded by illicit drug activity, he is the ranking Democrat on the House Criminal Justice and Drug Policy Subcommittee.

Regarding a Baltimore grand jury recommendation in May 2003 to conduct "regulated distribution of heroin" -- a policy that had been endorsed by Mr. Schmoke -- Mr. Cummings offered this response in October: "`Human bondage' are strong words to use, but no other phrase adequately expresses the degradation that drug addiction inflicts upon our community. A free society -- a people who believe in the sanctity of each human being -- must never condone addiction, nor those who seek to profit from enslaving their neighbors."

Baltimore is starting to rise from the ashes of heroin, but it is not above them yet.

Robert Weiner was spokesman and director of public affairs for the White House Office of National Drug Policy from 1995 to 2001. Sasha Varghese, a senior at the University of Virginia, is an antidrug activist.

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