The failed war on drugs continues to amass casualties in Baltimore and beyond

Is violence on the rise in Baltimore because the riots interrupted the city's drug trade?

As rightly concerned and upset as we are about Freddie Gray's death in police custody, we ought to be just as concerned about the body count that existed prior to his death and has been on the rise ever since (there have been roughtly three dozen homicides in Baltimore since Gray died, not counting the many wounded). We have come to accept daily community violence as background noise.

What's going on, and what can be done?

Sadly, every city and region has well-established lines of distribution of illegal drugs and narcotics. Addicts need their drugs once or several times a day, and there's a global network established to satisfy that craving. It starts overseas where opium and cocaine are processed and then sent to virtually every community and street corner in the U.S. The billions of dollars spent to buy drugs are funneled back to the drug cartels via financial mechanisms that would rival a Wall Street investment bank.

When those distribution lines are disrupted — in our case by the Baltimore riots — drug distribution chaos ensues. Prices rise, tempers flare, deals go sour, and shootings increase.

It also explains why rioters targeted certain stores and products. They entered drug stores, not to get antacids or toothpaste, but to get narcotics. They also aimed for high-value, small size, non-traceable items suitable for easy re-sale, like tennis shoes, jackets and liquor. A $150 pair of sneakers can be fenced for $50 to $75, a leather jacket retailing at $200 might fetch $100 on the street, and a bottle of alcohol might bring 50 percent of retail.

This is what happened after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. In the wake of supply disruption, addicts attacked hospitals and pharmacies to get narcotics, sedatives and tranquilizers, anything to get high or to ward off the symptoms of withdrawal.

The spike in crime tells us something else: We cannot police ourselves out of this mess. Law enforcement and the criminal justice system have roles to play, but they are insufficient. Even with hundreds of police and thousands of National Guardsmen on the street and with the nation's focus on Baltimore, the crime wave began. And it's continuing now with a vengeance.

Estimates are that there are 60,000 to 80,000 addicts in the Baltimore metropolitan area. Given that each one might need $10 to $100 every day to maintain his or her habit, it's easy see just how deep this problem runs.

All this is a result of the war on drugs, now 50 years old. It's a war that has claimed tens of thousands of casualties both at home and abroad, destroyed the lives of countless innocent bystanders, turned neighborhoods — and in some cases whole regions — into killing fields, filled prisons to overflowing with non-violent offenders, poisoned farmlands and forests, undermined police and government agencies, corrupted multi-national banks and financial companies, funded overseas enemies and terrorists, and despite the tremendous cost in blood and treasure has not advanced the cause for which the war was declared. Drug use has not measurably declined since President Nixon started that war in 1970.

Not only has the war on drugs failed, it continues to make the situation worse. It's turned into a war on people, communities, institutions and ultimately ourselves. A new strategy is needed.

We need to treat drug addiction and substance abuse as diseases like we do with alcoholism. We need to take the profit out of the illegal drug markets. We need to confront the underlying circumstances that make drugs so appealing to so many. We need to look at approaches taken in other countries like Portugal and Switzerland, where alternative strategies have reduced drug use and dangerous behaviors, and modify those to our unique circumstances.

And perhaps most importantly, we need to engage physicians and nurses, public health experts, law enforcement, scientists, addiction counselors, addicts, all levels of government, researchers, educators, and anyone and everyone who can contribute in a civil, thoughtful and unemotional discussion with the goal of developing and implementing a drug control strategy that is based on science and not on politics. This could even positively affect police behavior in cities with predominantly black communities by restoring a more positive role for officers.

Drug use will never be completely eradicated, but that doesn't mean we should throw up our hands and do nothing. We need to get back to what should have been the goal of the war on drugs all along: a society where drug abuse is as rare and as manageable as we can make it. That is a goal worthy of our nation's energy and resources and one that is within our reach if we choose to focus our serious attention on it. Baltimore's recovery will never happen unless we address this issue.

Dan K. Morhaim is a physician and a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, representing District 11 in Baltimore County. His email is dan.morhaim@house.state.md.us.

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