Let Adam Smith be the drug pusher

November 07, 2007|By JAY HANCOCK

There is a way to stop Baltimore's murder epidemic. Improve Baltimore's schools. Revive Baltimore's neighborhoods. And it doesn't involve more police, higher taxes or longer prison sentences.

Instead, it requires restructuring what is possibly the city's biggest industry.

Legalize heroin and cocaine sales, and you erase the economic force behind Baltimore's heartache.

Would it lead to new addicts? Of course. Would it send a bad message to kids? Yep. Would it cause problems we can't envisage? Probably. And it would be an enormous improvement.

We've tried everything else. Not only has the war on drugs failed to stop addiction, it wreaks damage a hundred times worse than the problem it addresses. Why are voters and politicians still shy about trying the only thing with a chance of succeeding?

As of yesterday afternoon 254 people had been killed in Baltimore this year.

Any police officer will tell you almost all the deaths were probably drug-dealer related. The small businesses retailing cocaine and heroin are financing murder as surely as Legg Mason contributes to United Way.

As former Baltimore policeman Peter Moskos pointed out in The Sun three years ago, maintaining a private army is essential if your company can't resolve disputes in the court system the way other businesses do. Iraq's Shiite militias don't have much on the Bloods or the North Avenue Boys.

Society needs to apply a force more powerful than a Glock 17 or a Jessup prison cell: economics. Only by fighting business with business can we put dealers out of business.

I don't mean letting drug dens spread like McDonald's. Legal dope must be dispensed by heavily regulated clinics.

But government-sponsored competition will hurt dealers in a way that the Drug Enforcement Administration can't.

Incumbent merchants have terrible marketing problems, for one thing. Their street-corner venues are cold and dangerous. Prices are high to cover the cost of security, lawyers, confiscated inventory and shipping from Colombia and Afghanistan. Quality is always a question.

Even the government, rarely known for efficiency, would quickly undercut the drug lords, steal their customers and wipe out their profits. Addicts would still be here, but without the violence and contaminated needles.

No single change in policy would lead to so many good outcomes. Neighbors could take back neighborhoods. Housing values and the tax base would rise. Arrests and incarceration would plummet.

Billions blown on the drug wars and prisons could be spent instead on tax cuts and schools - and drug treatment and drug education. With no narcotics lords as role models, more city kids might pay attention to schoolwork. With less city violence, more companies might move in to employ them.

And Baltimore murders, a daily occurrence, might fall to one a week.

But don't legalize drugs just for Baltimore. Do it for American troops fighting insurgents financed by narcotics. Do it for the people of Afghanistan, Colombia and Peru, where drug money keeps outlaw warlords in business and prevents the countries from joining the developed world. If Baltimore and all its problems were a nation, you'd get Colombia, where narco-gangsters rule and the United States has spent more than $2 billion trying in vain to stop the cocaine flow.

Illegal drug money finances bad guys all over the world. Dispensing legal heroin and cocaine bought through licensed, controlled sources would strike a bigger blow against terrorism than a lot of what Washington is doing and at a much cheaper price.

Of course no politician with a chance of getting elected is talking about this. Former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke was ridiculed for broaching the idea in the 1990s. A. Robert Kaufman, the Socialist candidate in yesterday's mayoral election, has long supported legalization. He probably got less than 1 percent of the vote. Presidential candidates Ron Paul (a libertarian Republican), Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich (Democrats), all skeptical of the war on drugs, are likely to do about as well.

Yes, legalizing drugs is a drastic step. Of course you're against it. Got any better ideas? The status quo is ripping the city apart.

We began the war on drugs so Americans wouldn't become addicted. Well, the addicts are here. The business of selling cocaine and heroin isn't going anywhere. The only question: Will it be conducted on the Bloods' terms? Or ours?

jay.hancock@baltsun.com

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