Assuming one agrees that necessity is the mother of invention, this is an opportune time for state government to devise new policies that will make our communities healthier and safer. One focus of those new policies should be the scourge of illegal drugs.
For many years, and from our different professional perspectives, we have urged government to adopt an approach that treats illegal drug use as primarily a public health problem rather than a criminal justice problem. One of us is a psychiatrist and health administrator with more than 60 years of experience working with substance-abusing people. The other is an attorney and former three-term mayor of Baltimore whose work in the private and public sectors has brought him into close encounters with the short-term and long-term consequences of flawed drug control policies. We believe that the time has come for state government and the public to engage in a conversation that sheds more light on the issues of drug control, recidivism and prevention.
The financial predicament of government these days has leaders thinking creatively about the scope and nature of future government operations. Drug control policy should be a part of this creative thinking process. Citizens know that we spend millions of dollars each year attempting to become a drug-free society primarily by relying on the criminal justice and corrections systems. Success in this approach has been elusive.
We think the public would be well served by the creation of an impartial study commission that would provide a cost/benefit analysis of current drug control policies. Appointed by the governor and approved by the General Assembly, this commission would be made up of health and mental health providers, addiction researchers and advocates, law enforcement personnel, elected officials and individuals with expertise in micro and macro economics. Their focus would be on factual analysis, not philosophical debate.
Government officials would be in a better position to recommend drastic change in drug control policies if a panel of respected individuals demonstrated to the public that the costs of the current approach outweigh the benefits to society. In our view, an objective study is bound to reach that conclusion and to offer more effective alternatives through incorporating effective treatments and perhaps other solutions.
Any study commission would be bound to recognize that the state does not have new money to put into a drug control strategy. The main issue for consideration is whether the existing money is being spent effectively. What are the stated goals of the policy, and are those goals being achieved? Can other alternatives work more effectively and cost less? The facts, not sentiment, should drive the analysis so that the public will be presented with a very clear view of what has or has not been achieved in this process, which has come to be known as the war on drugs.
What would flow from this cost/benefit study can't be predicted at this point. One thing is sure, however, and that is that the environment for debate and discussion would be improved. This would be a major step forward. An open and frank discussion of the stark financial choices facing the community as a result of our policy choices is long overdue. The times require that we face clearly the question of whether we want to spend our resources pursuing the strategies of the past or, instead, considering reasonable alternative approaches that might yield greater positive results.
In our view, a successful cost/benefit study followed by a fair review would allow the state to implement drug control policies based on science and reason rather than emotion and fear. Hopefully, our political lenders will seize this opportunity for change.
Dr. Irving J. Taylor is the former medical director of Taylor Manor Hospital in Ellicott City. Kurt L. Schmoke is dean of Howard Law School and former mayor of Baltimore. His e-mail is email@example.com.