One hundred and ninety six people were murdered in Baltimore last year. Recent figures show our violent crime rate is more than two and a half times the national average. Many of these crimes spawned from the illegal nature of the drug trade, and the vast majority of them will go unsolved because so much police time is spent arresting drug users and low-level dealers.
But this weekend, a cross-country caravan of victims of the drug war brings a message of change to Baltimore. Dozens of Mexican and U.S.-based drug war survivors, law enforcement officers and others with firsthand experience with failed drug laws have been traveling for weeks now, educating people about the destruction our policies have wrought and the futility of continuing them.
Forty years after President Nixon declared the war on drugs, and after a trillion dollars spent, drug use continues unabated, yet the power of the gangs supplying the drugs has greatly increased. Those gangs were responsible for more than 60,000 deaths and 10,000 disappearances in Mexico over the past six years, and untold deaths in the United States over the past four decades. Family members of some of those killed are on the caravan today, and polls show voters agree with them that it's time to enact drug law reform. Politicians and policymakers need to abide public opinion and common sense by providing treatment, not jail time, to people with substance abuse issues.
I was a police officer. Over the course of my 34-year career, I arrested hundreds of people for drugs, and I saw how this not only failed to prevent violent crime but caused more violence as others battled to take over newly available markets. I saw that when those I arrested went to jail, they lost their jobs, homes, friends and families because of it. It's unlikely that anything in their lives changed for the better because of their interaction with the criminal justice system. Most of them didn't receive treatment for their addictions. They weren't educated. And they weren't given job skills that would help them reintegrate into society.
I know the harm drugs can do and how important professional help is to treating drug addiction. And I know that for every dollar spent on treatment, four to seven dollars are saved on crime and criminal justice costs. But I also know how few addicts receive this treatment because our drug control funding priorities are upside down.
In the end, the only things that improved were the profits of the violent drug cartels running the trade and the arrest numbers of the police department. Numbers that tried so desperately to prove that which is unprovable: that we are winning this costly, destructive, unwinnable war on drugs. All the while the drug treatment centers, the employment agencies, the schools of the city — and across the nation — remain underfunded.
Although this is a problem in Baltimore, it's not merely a Baltimore problem. President Barack Obama has repeatedly said we should treat drug abuse as a health problem rather than as a criminal matter, but he has yet to back up his rhetoric with shifts in drug control funding. He, like President George W. Bush before him, spends the majority of federal drug money on law enforcement, punishment and interdiction, rather than on prevention and treatment.
This in turn, puts pressure on countries south of the border, many of whose foreign aid, essential to their very survival, is tied to their participation in the American war on drugs. That is what brought the Caravan For Peace here this weekend. Imagine losing your own child — to drug war violence, to the criminal justice system or to drugs themselves — and being able to do little about it because it's not even your own country's war. That is the plight for Javier Sacilia, the renowned Mexican poet leading the caravan, who lost his son at the murderous hands of the cartel.
For the sake of the mothers and fathers, the brothers and sisters and daughters and sons of those who have been lost but who have no voice to protest, make your voice heard. Tell your elected leaders it's time to change our priorities in the war on drugs. Tell them it's time to fund treatment centers and schools, not another juvenile justice center.
Neill Franklin is the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a retired Maryland State Police major and former Baltimore Police lieutenant colonel. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.