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A way to end the drug wars

EIGHT PEOPLE were shot in the city over the weekend, five fatally. While investigations are still pending, there's a high probability that those five lives were just the latest casualties in our society's futile "War on Drugs."

As the human toll mounts and more of our scarce tax dollars are poured down the rat hole of drug interdiction and drug-law enforcement, it's time to look for solutions to this problem.

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With this in mind, the City-Wide Coalition is calling for people across the city to coalesce to help bring an end to this madness with a sensible, nationwide program that would treat drug addiction as a public health issue, not a criminal one.

To spark the national debate that's needed to get this effort started, we want city residents to demand that the Baltimore City Council adopt a resolution asking the U.S. Congress to establish an independent commission to oversee the distribution now illegal drugs through health clinics.

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Once such a resolution is approved by the council, it would be distributed to President Bill Clinton, the Congress, the governors and legislatures of all 50 states, and to the mayors and councils of the 50 largest cities who would be asked to help get their congressional representatives to support this effort. Under this proposal, the politically independent commission established by Congress would have the authority to direct clinics to sell drugs to addicts at nominal costs. It would continue to be illegal to buy and sell such drugs privately.

Following are the expected results of such a program:

* Murder rates would drop as the war between drug dealers ended. Drug dealers would go out of business since users could receive their drugs from the clinics.

* A drop in the number of prostitutes. Many people who now sell their bodies to buy expensive drugs could patronize clinics for low-cost drugs.

* The jobless rate would decline. Many people who now wander the streets looking for ways to make money illegally to support their drug habits would become employed at legitimate occupations, much the way many alcoholics manage to work every day now. They would feel more in control of their lives and, as a result, many would probably seek rehabilitation.

* A drop in the number of homeless people. Many of them would no longer steal to support their habits and, thus, could live with relatives.

* Reduced AIDS infection. The clinics would also distribute clean needles, reducing the number of people infected by the human immuno-deficiency virus or HIV that causes AIDS. That's the primary way the disease is spread in Baltimore.

* A reduction in crime rates. With drugs available for nominal fees at clinics, there would be less incentive for addicts to steal cars, burglarize homes and businesses, rob banks, carjack, commit street robberies, etc.

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* Welfare rolls would decrease. With more people back to work, fewer mothers would need government funds for their children.

* The drug culture would disappear. Children would no longer want to emulate drug dealers who would be put out of business; people would take control of their neighborhoods again as the fear and intimidation associated with drug dealers vanished; fewer children would be caught in the cross fire of gunfights; fewer youths would end up with prison records for drug crimes. Also, the corruptive influences on police departments and other law-enforcement officials would lessen as the profit motive would be removed from drugs.

* Foreign aid outlays would decline. Money now spent for such projects as spraying defoliants on drug crops in other countries or paying foreign governments to fight drug trafficking in their own countries could be used for other purposes.

* Less money for prisons. We recently topped 1 million prison inmates in this country and still drug trafficking has not slowed. Take the huge profit out of the business and those selling drugs eventually will find new occupations, drastically reducing the number of people who wind up in prisons and jails. It costs on average $20,000 a year to care and feed each prisoner in the system.

The City-Wide Coalition, which is pushing this reform program, has addressed nearly 150 civic groups in Baltimore City since February. In those meetings, we have met scores of people who are eager for alternatives to the present drug policies. These people know that the status quo isn't working.

This effort grew out of the grass-roots campaign that launched the municipal auto insurance program that's designed to offer city residents rates considerably below those offered by commercial insurers. After some modifications to the original plan, city residents could begin receiving discounted rates next spring.

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Just as Baltimore has been the leader in reducing city auto insurance rates, we could lead in changing the drug problem from a criminal-justice issue to a public health one. We want to be as successful with the drug problem as we have been with the automobile insurance issue.

Six years ago Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said that the present system of dealing with the drug problem wasn't working and he called for a dialogue on alternatives. We are that dialogue.

A. Robert Kaufman is president of the City-Wide Coalition.


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