The Bloody Results Of Drug Prohibition

July 29, 2009|By Dan Rodricks

So, give me that again: Heroin and cocaine are illegal - controlled, dangerous substances - because they are harmful to society, destroyers of bodies and minds, destroyers of families, even whole neighborhoods? Is that it?

We have state and federal prohibitions against the sale and possession of these narcotics because, otherwise, we would have widespread dysfunction in American households and mayhem on our streets?

We have devoted billions of taxpayer dollars and millions of hours of police work to stopping the illegal drug commerce because, without that effort, we think the United States would be a dangerous place?

More than any other nation on Earth, we have filled our prisons with drug users and drug dealers - and built more prisons and filled those - because, eventually, this massive incarceration will choke off the trafficking of drugs and diminish the demand?

Am I getting warmer?

I was in East Baltimore again Monday morning, where the police had blocked off several long blocks for one of the crime-scene investigations stemming from one of Sunday's shootings. This is not an unusual sight in the police department's Eastern District, for years the most violent. We've had violent weekends before, with multiple shootings in a matter of hours, but none like this one - 18 people shot, 12 of them at a cookout, in what appears to have been the climax of a long-running feud among drug gangs.

Even to Baltimoreans, this was shocking. Most of the time, we move about this city with eyes wide shut to the reports of shootings and killings; we love this town, but it's often necessary to look past its problems in order to maintain our relationship with it. And, unless you live in one of the poorest neighborhoods, where the reality includes gunfire, and unless you are involved in the drug trade, your chances of being a victim of a homicide are low. So most of us go about our business - aware of, but not much engaged in, that other Baltimore immersed in the heroin-and-cocaine scene.

I shared a crab cake a couple of years ago with a drug gang member named Chico. Fresh from prison, he was trying to start a new life in Westport, on the southwest side of the city. He considered himself "Old G," meaning "old gangsta," and yet still felt pressure from his peers to get back in the game. He didn't want that; he wanted to live with his girlfriend, find a job and visit his parole officer. But once in the drug culture, it's hard to get out; without income from a legitimate job, the money from selling dope starts to look really good again. By the time I spoke to Chico, the only person who had offered him a job was a drug dealer.

I don't know what happened; I gave him what few job leads I had and moved on. But it wouldn't surprise me if Chico eventually went back to the street, no matter the risks. (The day before my conversation with Chico, a heroin addict in Westport had been shot to death, allegedly by the dealer he was working for.)

So, back to my questions: Why are heroin and cocaine illegal? Why do we maintain this prohibition if the collateral damage from it is so vast and so enduring?

There's been a huge demand for these drugs for decades, a vast and lucrative market fully exploited by young men who, lacking other opportunities as lucrative, created distribution systems, formed gangs, armed themselves, killed to maintain their livelihoods, forced cities and towns to add police, forced states and counties to build more prisons and detention centers, made bad neighborhoods worse, intimidated law-abiding families, and ruined efforts at post-industrial urban progress. This underground commerce is responsible for a massive amount of violence and mayhem in Baltimore and other cities - and all because its top-selling products are illegal.

Drug addiction is a terrible thing. So is alcoholism. But booze and beer are legal, and Americans stopped killing each other over booze and beer 75 years ago.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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