Baltimore's 'Mayor Smoke' on the war on drugs: I told you so

Three-term former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke sounded an early alarm that the war on drugs would by a pricey failure

BALTIMORE – After the fatal injury of Freddie Gray in police custody and the subsequent rioting, local leaders have been trying to understand the roots of Baltimore's anger.

One glaring flashpoint is the war on drugs.

The decades-old effort has cost America more than $1.5 trillion – and mounting voices are calling it a failure.

President Obama recently called it "counterproductive" and costly to taxpayers, leading to mass incarceration and the destruction of families and communities. According to the Department of Justice, the drug possession arrests increased 80 percent between 1990 and 2010, peaking at more than 1.8 million in 2007.

In this file photo, then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke (left) appears at an event with Baltimore police.

A former three-term mayor of Baltimore, Kurt Schmoke was in office at the height of the drug war in the 1990s and sounded an early warning about it. He became known for an idea that was radical at the time: decriminalizing drugs. Very few American politicians shared his outlook.

Now president of the University of Baltimore, Schmoke predicted devastating fallout from the war on drugs, a forecast that's since proven prescient in many ways.

In a conversation with America Tonight, Schmoke discussed his views on decriminalizing drugs, treating addiction and the city's future. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Adam May: How do you think the war on drugs has affected inner cities like Baltimore?

Kurt Schmoke: I actually think that the way in which the country has conducted the war on drugs has done more harm than good. It's certainly increased the number of people who were incarcerated and those people of course will come back into a community that is very reluctant to hire people who have a criminal record. So it gets to be a self-fulfilling process: People go away, they learn more about criminal activity inside these facilities than they do outside, and they come back.

Some of these neighborhoods here in Baltimore are now in their third generation of high poverty levels and high unemployment. What do we do to turn them around?

It's got to be a public/private partnership. We tried our best in the 1990s to make significant improvements in Sandtown-Winchester, which is the area where the young man Freddie Gray lived. And we invested very heavily in housing, in some of the recreation programs, and made impact, but it wasn't a long-lasting impact. You need to have the private sector get involved to offer jobs and training. You have to change some laws. For example, we have to allow for the expungement of criminal records for people who committed non-violent crimes, young people who have gotten involved [in the criminal justice system] early in their lives, but they haven't done anything wrong since then. They ought to be given a second chance. That would be an enormous help for a lot of young people in this community.

You can't really incarcerate your way out of addiction. Addiction needs treatment. It needs intervention.

Kurt Schmoke

former Baltimore mayor

When you called for decriminalization, how did you think that that would help neighborhoods and families in some of these struggling parts of Baltimore?

I hope that decriminalization – or I sometimes refer to as medicalization – would help the communities in this way: It would begin to look at addicts more as people who need treatment, rather than people who need incarceration. You can't really incarcerate your way out of addiction. Addiction needs treatment. It needs intervention.

A lot of people can envision the effects of decriminalizing marijuana or legalizing it, but if you start talking about drugs that are more addictive, like heroin and crack...

I always said that we ought to look at a set drug policy based on science, so drugs that cause more harm should be treated in a different way than those that cause less harm. We have a situation in our country where the Centers for Disease Control over and over and over reports that there are more people killed because of smoking tobacco than from smoking marijuana. And yet, tobacco's legal, marijuana is illegal. On science, on policy, that doesn't make any sense. The only way you can justify it is really on politics.

Governor Hogan just signed the Second Chance Act, which will allow people to shield certain low-level offenses from potential employers. It's not full expungement. Do you think this goes far enough?

No, unfortunately. I think it's the right step. You need to go further because I've seen other places where they've had the shield law when somebody can just get on the Internet and go around it. You really need to allow people to expunge. I think folks are beginning to understand that this problem is not just an inner-city problem. In our state, we have this commission looking at heroin in the suburban counties first, as well as the urban center. More and more people are beginning to understand that the drug problem is really a cancer on our country, and you deal with cancer, not by incarcerating it, you deal with it by public health strategies.

Schmoke says some of the projects his administration undertook to improve Baltimore in the early 1990s – including housing and recreation efforts – had a positive impact, but not necessarily a long-lasting one. He'd like to see more investment in the city from the private sector.

How does the war on drugs tie into the community's reaction to the Freddie Gray case?

On one hand, you have communities, particularly communities of color that say, "We don't want this drug dealing on our streets." So they welcome the police in to try to deal with the street guys. On the other hand, the major players in the war, the guys that are really making the big money, are not the guys that are on the street, so the police get diverted to going after the street-level guys because it increased arrests, it increased their statistics, and when you increase your statistics, you get more grant money to the city so it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How would you undo the damage from the war on drugs? Where would you begin?

I would begin with a real commitment to drug treatment, to send the signal that we're going to treat addicts as patients to be cured, not criminals to be incarcerated. To overcome the politics of resistance to change in the war on drugs, I'd probably start at the drug courts. I would dramatically expand the number of drug courts that we have, so that we'll say to those who believe in the war on drugs, "Yes, we're going to continue to arrest, but we're going to give people a second chance," and drug courts give people a second chance. Then, of course, I'd change the law to allow for true expungement of records for those charged with simple possession.

Is Baltimore savable? Does it need saving?

I think the good days outweigh the bad days for Baltimore. And there's so much good to build on, we just have to join together as a community and build on that, recognizing that we have a problem. Years ago, there was a study that came out about the city and it said that even though we have this great Inner Harbor and some wonderful things, "There's rot beneath the glitter." And we've got to just own up to that and recognize it. But when you have a house and there's some rotting things in there, you don't just tear down the whole house, you take care of the rot there.

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