Another innocent victim in the war on drugs

May 02, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

So we have another innocent victim of the war on drugs, this time an 86-year-old man named Elbert Davis, the father of a Baltimore police officer. Wednesday morning, two plainclothes detectives were doing their job, watching the activities of suspected drug dealers at the Seton Park apartments in Howard Park. They went to stop a couple of them, but the suspects drove away, and a few blocks later, there was a crash — the fleeing drug suspects' Acura striking the elderly Mr. Davis' Chevrolet.

How bitterly sad and infuriating: an old man dying on a spring day because much younger men and women still waste their brains on heroin — and because we think that's a bad thing that must be stopped, even at extravagant cost in treasure and humanity.

Police say they found 32 grams of heroin and a digital scale in the suspects' car on Wednesday. I pulled an unopened round box of salt out of the cupboard and examined it. There were 737 grams of salt inside. That's 23 times as much heroin as the police say they pulled out of the Acura. According to Gordon Tayback, who has defended thousands of clients in Baltimore drug cases during the last three decades, that's little more than an ounce of heroin, but certainly enough for police to charge someone with possession with intent to distribute.

That's what we pay the police to do — arrest those who use or sell heroin, and frequently the users are also dealers, selling to support their addictions. There have been thousands upon thousands of arrests in the drug war, and billions of taxpayer dollars spent on its prosecution, from sea to shining sea, since Ronald Reagan was president. The United States is, per capita, the most incarcerated society in the world as a result of the drug war and the new laws written by Congress and state legislatures, and approved by courts, to facilitate its execution.

The collateral damage is everywhere — devastated neighborhoods, broken or stressed families, children left without support — and now Mr. Elbert Davis, yet another innocent bystander victimized by the war on drugs.

I don't blame the police officers for doing their duty in Howard Park the other day. I don't excuse the suspects in this case.

I am just asking, again, as another Baltimore family suffers through a needless tragedy, that we think about this.

How long are we going to try to arrest our way out of heroin and other addictions that are at the root of it all?

Drug dealers only exist as long as what they sell is both illegal and in demand. Instead of constantly putting them in jail, why not put them out of business for good?

Surveys indicate that millions of Americans regard the war on drugs as a failure, or at least a misuse of public funds, and I've heard the sentiment expressed across the political spectrum — from the left, right and the middle.

But what next? How do we ever break this cycle?

Certainly, the political class can't be expected to boldly step forth. Politicians are generally content with the status quo, and some continue to support the war on drugs as a means of maintaining public macho. (In his first year as Maryland governor, Martin O'Malley called drug dealing a "violent crime" and refused to support even a modest change in the sentencing of low-level, nonviolent dealers.) Few who have to run for re-election will risk, even at this late and dubious stage of the war, making the suggestion that the former mayor of Baltimore, Kurt L. Schmoke, made in the 1980s — that we at least begin to have a national discussion about legalizing certain drugs.

And then, far to Mr. Schmoke's right, there's the memory of William F. Buckley Jr. It has been 15 years since the late conservative columnist, and editor of The National Review, suggested that narcotics be sold at a "federal drugstore," eliminating the illegal trade and almost all other crime associated with it. Mr. Buckley wrote that "the cost of the drug war is many times more painful, in all its manifestations, than would be the licensing of drugs combined with an intensive education of non-users …"

And, I would add, a conversion of public funds from law enforcement to the treatment of addicts.

Treat addicts, reduce demand, eliminate the street dealers, and someday we reduce the violence and the pain and the needless tragedy.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM. His e-mail is

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