A different commander-in-chief will soon assume leadership of the War on Drugs. Let’s hope that a new leader will implement a new strategy, because for nearly a century now-- following the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914--America’s War on Drugs has been seen primarily as a criminal justice problem. And for nearly a century, we’ve seen this approach to fighting drugs fail and fail and then fail again. Almost nobody’s pleased with the results. So my question is: Why haven’t we been able to change course? And why haven’t we been able to convince policymakers and the public to deal with one of our great domestic blights the way it should be dealt with: primarily as a public health issue?
It has been twenty years since I, as Mayor of Baltimore, joined in efforts led by others to reform America’s national drug control policy. Prior to my election, I had served as a loyal foot solider in the drug war as a prosecuting attorney. From that vantage point, I viewed the drug problem one-dimensionally, as a crime problem. Drug dealers and users were to be arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated, and their material gains were to be seized. The assumption was (and remains) that in time this would decrease the problem and rid our cities of the scourge of substance abuse. Throughout the country, major arrests and drug seizures were announced with great fanfare. Cars, planes, boats, and houses were confiscated. Arrest and incarceration statistics soared. The public perception was that we were winning the War on Drugs.
Once I became mayor, I viewed the drug problem from a different perspective. I came to see it as a three-headed monster of crime, AIDS, and addiction. As I listened to the body wire worn by Baltimore Police Detective Marty Ward shortly before he was killed by a drug dealer, I learned that there were people who were more hooked on drug money than on drugs, and that the only way to stop them was to take the profit out of distributing drugs at the street level. As I met with dozens of babies born drug addicted and HIV positive, the victims of intravenous-drug-using mothers, I discovered the need for public intervention to protect these innocent children. And as I spoke with teachers about the number of children who came to school from homes where one or more adults were addicted, I saw how the lure of “the corner” could overwhelm the imperative to learn. It became clearer and clearer to me that the victims of the drug war couldn’t be helped solely by increasing the prison population.
Unfortunately for opponents of the prevailing national drug control policy, the political environment rarely allows for a dispassionate discussion of policy alternatives. Those who argue for drug policy reform are labeled as soft on crime, a damaging characterization that most politicians desperately wish to avoid. I remember well the harsh bipartisan criticism I encountered when I began questioning the rationale of the War on Drugs twenty years ago. Two things helped me to weather the storm: a four-year term and the fact that I had been a prosecuting attorney before my election as mayor. Most congressmen, running every two years, do not enjoy that kind of political protection.
The inertia the political environment creates is especially frustrating because good alternatives--most notably, “harm reduction” and “therapeutic sentencing”--have existed for some time now. The basic tenet of harm reduction, as noted by the Drug Policy Alliance, is that drug policies should seek to reduce the negative consequences (principally death, disease, crime, and suffering) of both drug use and drug control policies themselves. Therapeutic sentencing improves the effectiveness of drug courts by allowing for an expansion of drug treatment alternatives, the expungement of records for non-repeat offenders, and the creative use of probation and other alternatives to incarceration. But every time we talk about drug policy, it inevitably gets filtered into an absolutist and not particularly useful discussion on legalization that, on both sides, is light on substance and heavy on grandstanding.
So, here’s one suggestion to break the gridlock: Early in his or her term--and with great fanfare--the new president should announce a significant federal investment in drug courts. What do drug courts do? While they’re not all the same, the idea is to put participants through an intensive regimen of substance abuse treatment, drug testing, and close supervision. Judges in these courts wield two significant powers: the power to incarcerate those who fail the regimen, and the power to expunge or erase records of minor convictions, thus giving offenders the chance for a genuine fresh start in life. And while I am aware that there are many proponents of drug policy reform who oppose drug courts on the grounds that they overemphasize the criminal justice system, major policy reform usually happens in incremental steps, and elected officials are reluctant to get too far ahead of their constituents on sensitive issues such as this. A presidential commitment to the goals of drug courts could be an important first step that could allow for further, more treatment-minded reform down the line.
Why do I believe this? Because over the past decade, the public seems to have accepted drug courts as a means of blending judicial accountability and effective treatment. Consider the dramatic growth of these courts in state judicial systems, from a handful in 1989 to over 2,000 by 2007. According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, every year over 100,000 addicts--whose cases would normally be processed through juvenile, adult, or family courts--are now tried in drug courts. That’s good news. But then consider this: There are roughly 1.8 million people arrested each year for drug law violations--40 percent of them just for marijuana possession. If there were a strategy, as outlined by the president, that placed sustainable drug courts in all counties of the United States, fewer addicts would populate our prisons and more would be treated from a public health perspective. Governors might embrace the idea because it would reduce the cost of operating prisons, and congresspeople might be more willing to explore larger policy changes if their constituents became comfortable pursuing new strategies to respond to substance abuse. Results matter--and a successful nationwide drug court program could push skittish lawmakers to change an obviously failing drug policy.
Still, drug control policy has not been prominent in the presidential campaign, so it is difficult to predict which candidate might bring about real change in this area. In 2000, many thought that George W. Bush might be an agent of change because he was a businessman--from a cost/benefit standpoint, current drug control policies are hard to justify--and because he was someone who noted that when he was young and irresponsible, he was young and irresponsible. Bush seemed to suggest that punitive corrective action need not be a permanent cross for an individual to bear. And yet, as president, he took no action that fundamentally altered the longstanding national drug control strategy.
Although Barack Obama doesn’t speak about the drug war often, when he does, he’s by far the most forward-looking of the three remaining candidates. In his fall semester convocation address at Howard University, the Senator said the following:
I think it’s time we took a hard look at the wisdom of locking up some first time nonviolent drug users for decades. Someone once said, and I quote: “Minimum sentences for first-time users may not be the best way to occupy jail space, and/or heal people from their disease.” You know who said that? That was George W. Bush--six years ago. And I don’t say this very often, but I agree with George W. Bush. The difference is that he hasn’t done anything about it.
Of course, history suggests that Obama will not act on his promise of reform if he wins in November. But we can hope. By urging reform of national drug control policy--starting with a call for more adjudication through drug courts--a President Obama will not be signaling retreat in the War on Drugs. He will be announcing a more effective way of achieving peace.
Kurt L. Schmoke is the Dean of Howard Law School and from 1988 to 1999 served as mayor of Baltimore.
By Kurt L. Schmoke