Drug Legalization: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed

It was four years ago that Kurt Schmoke, newly elected as mayor of Baltimore, first proposed that one way to combat the scourge of drug abuse might be to "decriminalize" it.

The mayor's suggestion was offered tentatively, even diffidently. He seemed to see the idea not so much as a mature policy option but as something worth at least discussing. After all, nothing else seemed to be working, and the concept wasn't unreasonable.


Billions of dollars were being spent in largely unsuccessful efforts to block the torrent of drugs pouring into the United States, and to prosecute users as well as traffickers. Yet drug abuse continued to increase. Maybe we could use all that money in a better way -- for education, say, or treatment centers -- if drugs were legal. Those programs were certainly desperate for help.

The mayor was careful to draw a distinction between decriminalizing drug use and legalizing drugs, and to emphasize that the problem should be seen more as one of public health than of law enforcement. A successful anti-drug campaign, he liked to say, "needs to be led by the Surgeon General, not the Attorney General."


But once Mr. Schmoke's proposal was out of the bag, it flapped off vigorously on its own. It was immediately endorsed by people who were anything but tentative and diffident, and soon the mayor was widely cited as an advocate of the legalization of addictive drugs.

On the far right, libertarians who think the government ought to get out of drug policy entirely stood up and cheered. William F. Buckley, a more orthodox conservative, also liked the idea. On the left, grizzled veterans of the '60s drug scene, who still equated pot with peace and hash with, like, harmony, also applauded. It all made Mr. Schmoke, briefly, a national celebrity.

But the mayor, who's no fool, saw very quickly that this was a parade he didn't need to be seen leading. So without any ringing public statements, he quietly stepped aside and let the marchers go on without him. Before long, they lost their way, or forgot just what it was they were marching for anyway, and the legalization-of-drugs issue moved off the front pages.

Several recent events bring this bit of ancient local history to mind as Mr. Schmoke begins his second term.

For one thing, there are little flickers of hope that the drug tide has reached flood and begun to ebb, if not yet on the streets of Baltimore and other big cities, then at least in much of Maryland. Attitudes toward drugs in schools, even city schools, reflect a more realistic assessment of their dangers.

No one yet wants to declare victory, for drug abuse is still a massive public-health problem -- far greater, in terms of its overall impact, than the AIDS virus. And of course the very idea of victory makes drug bureaucrats nervous, for its long-term implication for their budgets is threatening.

Finally, if drug abuse really is diminishing, no one is entirely sure why. But it's reasonable to assume that increased anti-drug efforts of many different kinds, in the schools, on the streets and on television, are beginning to pay off.

The drug-legalization movement, while not dead, is today barely twitching. Just this month, one of the best-known drug-decriminalization programs in the world was shut down, a complete disaster. This was the "Needle Park" experiment in Zurich, Switzerland.


The Swiss didn't ever actually legalize drugs, but for seven years they tolerated them in a park in downtown Zurich, since 1989 supplying free needles and medical assistance to addicts. The park drew drug users by the thousands, and turned into an open-air bazaar for the sale of illegal substances. Many users carried the AIDS virus. Drug-related crimes became commonplace in the surrounding area.

Neil Solomon, the unpaid chairman of the Maryland drug and alcohol abuse commission appointed by Governor Schaefer, had a look at Needle Park last fall. He found it a cesspool, and dryly suggested to the governor in a memo that if the Swiss experience means anything, "it does not appear that legalization will solve Maryland's drug problem."

Instead, Dr. Solomon has been pushing a public-health approach to drugs. This means essentially the many-pronged attack now being employed, emphasizing prevention and education as much as the interdiction of supplies and the treatment of the addicted. Legalization has few supporters of any stature left.

However, Mayor Schmoke still maintains, as he did in 1988, that some form of decriminalization is worth a try. His drug policy coordinator, Bill Crimi, praises government-run free-needle programs in Liverpool, England, and in Sweden, for reducing the rate of AIDS infection among drug abusers. In the Netherlands, Mr. Crimi observes, marijuana and hashish are legally sold in tobacco shops, yet the society remains healthy and stable.

Even though an intellectual argument can be mustered on behalf of decriminalizing drugs, Mr. Schmoke is practical enough to stipulate that he only supports such a step on a national level. For a single city or state to decriminalize drugs on its own, he recognizes, would be to run the risk of creating new Needle Parks -- and any politician perceived as bearing responsibility for such places wouldn't be around very long.

Actually, the public-health approach to drug abuse backed by Dr. Solomon and others isn't very different, with its emphasis on prevention and treatment, from what Mayor Schmoke has favored for years. So it shouldn't be too hard for the mayor to forget about decriminalization for a while and sign on with everyone else.


Baltimore has an estimated 35,000 users of heroin and 20,000 who use cocaine. Its drug problems are far from over. Mr. Schmoke will contribute more to their solution, and to his own reputation, if he formally abandons his role as the Lone Legalizer. If there ever was a time for the decriminalization of drugs, it isn't now.

Peter Jay's column appears here each Sunday.