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Another needless death in America's long, failed war on drugs

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Thirteen years ago, Cpl. Ed Toatley was working undercover for the Maryland State Police when he was murdered during a botched drug deal in Washington, D.C. Ed was a close friend of mine, and his tragic death Oct. 30, 2000, began my quest to end America's longest war, the failed war on drugs. That quest led me to the newly formed Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an international nonprofit organization for law enforcement professionals embarking on journeys similar to mine, where I have served as executive director for the past three years.

Recently, another murder was committed as a result of the drug war — one that strikes me with similar emotion to what I felt upon hearing about Ed's death. Akeem Yarberough, 36, was gunned down early on the morning of June 4 at a bus stop in Baltimore's Reservoir Hill, less than half a block from my mother's home, where she has lived for 53 years, raising my four siblings and me. Akeem is the son of my childhood friends Gregory and Robertha "Cat" Yarberough.

Like countless other young, black men in Baltimore, Akeem had just been released from federal prison for his involvement in the local drug trade and was dedicated to putting the pieces of his life back together. Akeem was on his way to work, a job he had found at a local thrift store, when he was gunned down over unsettled business linked to his past involvement with the drug market in Baltimore. Akeem was not a bad person, and he did not deserve to die. Rather, like many young men in Baltimore, he grew up in physical, economic and social environments that put him in the wrong situation at the wrong time.

Reservoir Hill was once a close-knit, prosperous community of law-abiding, blue-collar workers. But when many of the industries upon which its residents depended for income began shipping their labor overseas in the 1960s and '70s, unemployment devastated the community. A market for illegal drugs sprang up that in turn gave birth to a system of gang affiliation and violence. Soon to follow this shift to black-market employment in Baltimore was the recruitment and hiring of local police by the Nixon administration, to enforce the federal government's get-tough policies of the war on drugs. This directly targeted black communities like Reservoir Hill.

Unfortunately for Akeem and thousands of other black men and women who have been labeled felons as a result of the war on drugs, the challenge of finding meaningful, legal employment becomes only more difficult and discouraging after release from prison. A recent Washington Post article reveals that only 26 percent of black males ages 20 to 34 with less than a high school education and a criminal record are employed. That number is over 57 percent for white males in the same category. With the availability of legal employment so scarce in communities of formerly incarcerated blacks, employment within the illicit drug trade becomes more attractive — potentially even necessary for survival.

But harder still is to survive these conditions at all. The murders of both Ed and Akeem are just two examples of a huge problem of gun violence and murder spawned by 42 years of failed drug prohibition policies — two murders from different sides of the game, and for me, both too close to home. But there are countless others. Baltimore Police Officer Michael Cowdery was murdered by a drug dealer soon after Ed. In 2003, the Dawson family of seven was murdered in one night by a drug dealer because their mother, Angela, was working with the police to have that drug dealer removed from her neighborhood. She was doing what we, the police, want all citizens to do. And Baltimore is just a case study for a nationwide epidemic of prohibition-related violence and death.

As long as we continue with the failed drug war and prohibition, the losses will continue to mount on all sides. Families will continue to lose fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, nieces and nephews; some to prison, some to murder and too many to both. Neighborhoods like Reservoir Hill will remain captive to violence and decay, and residents will continue to question what happened to the security and prosperity they once enjoyed as a community.

Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (www.copssaylegalizedrugs.com), did narcotics policing with the Maryland State Police and Baltimore Police Department for over 30 years.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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