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Can Baltimore end the War on Drugs? With move to decriminalize, Marilyn Mosby leads way while going out on a limb

In Portugal, where drugs were decriminalized two decades ago, anyone found with drugs goes before a panel made up of legal, health and social work professionals who refer them to treatment. As Oregon decriminalized drugs earlier this year following a referendum, tax revenue from marijuana sales was allotted for increased public health support.

But in Baltimore, where State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby last month cut the cord on possession arrests that have been falling for many years, the city is only inching toward establishing a wider public health response.

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The change is part of a broader move halting arrests for low-level offenses, including prostitution and trespassing. Some residents are upset; others, while voicing support for the premise, wonder what will happen instead.

“It’s like Baltimore is wide open. I’m disgusted and, talking with people in the community, they are disgusted,” said Cyndi Tensley, the president of the Carrollton Ridge neighborhood association.

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This year’s announcement was not abrupt — it was first implemented last spring, announced as a means to reduce the number of people cycling through jails during a pandemic. And it follows a massive, albeit steady, pre-pandemic decline in drug arrests in Baltimore City: Since the peak in 2003, drug arrests had fallen 90% by 2019.

Mosby and public health advocates say research is clear: While the problems may be frustrating, arresting people for those offenses does not solve them. Law enforcement must focus resources on violence and victim-based crimes, she says.

While Baltimore’s new progressive leadership has expressed support for a health-driven approach, little has been put in place to do that. An alternative to calling 911 would send service providers instead of police to mental health crisis calls. Mosby has said it’s close to reality, but it’s only in the pilot stage and would apply to just a subcategory of such calls, let alone a range of nuisance crimes.

Mosby acknowledges she jumped ahead. “I’m going to use my power and discretion to shape the criminal justice system the way it should be,” Mosby said a recent town hall forum, “which is a more equitable system for all.”

But critics say nuisance problems lead to crimes with victims — shootings between those peddling the drugs, as well as users breaking into cars and homes. At a recent City Council meeting, East Baltimore Councilman Tony Glover noted a sidewalk dice game that was shot up in broad daylight, injuring four. Another dice game was shot up Tuesday night. Some worry law enforcement will only step in to “restore order,” as one resident put it, after it’s too late.

Mosby and her supporters are trying to get residents to rethink who they look to fix such problems. Susan Sherman, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who helped inform the policy decision, said she understood residents’ concerns.

“I think the emphasis is on the wrong place,” Sherman said. “People should be putting pressure on the city for services, the way they do for police and patrols.”

For now, while officials explore other programs, residents are being told to keep calling police.

The War on Drugs

This year marks the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon declaring a war on drugs.

On a recent weekday evening, four young men were set up in the parking lot of Brooklyn Homes. One sat in a lawn chair, counting cash fanned out like a hand of playing cards. As vehicles approached, the men raced to be first to the driver’s side and whoever won made an exchange. No one else was around, though children played about 50 yards up the street.

Similar scenes played out across the city that evening: uninhibited public drug dealing, with officers in squad cars sometimes a block away and looking at their phones.

One man, who is 33 and identified himself only as Relly, was operating Friday off Edmondson Avenue. He said that he saw increasing demand for drugs, and though police continued to harass and profile men like him, peddling drugs wasn’t going to stop.

“This is how I pay bills,” he said, noting he has three children and a baby due in July. “They aren’t going to get us jobs.”

A review of three decades worth of crime data shows the decision to decriminalize drugs in the city actually carries across the finish line a shift that has been in the works for years.

From a peak of 32,000 arrests for drug possession and sales in 2003, the city has been on a steady downward trajectory ever since. The number had fallen to 20,400 by 2012, and was down to 13,400 just two years later. After marijuana was decriminalized in 2014, the number of drug arrests was halved and has continued to drop.

In 2019 — before the pandemic and the implementation of the top prosecutor’s policy — city police made 3,200 drug arrests, a decline of 90% from the peak.

Last year, it fell again, to 1,350 arrests, with the city on pace to record even fewer this year. Baltimore used to comprise more than half the total number of drug arrests statewide but now trails Montgomery and Prince George’s counties by large margins.

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison believes the long-term decline was both a product of focusing on violent offenders but also a resource issue with fewer officers. Mosby says she still wants police to go after drug dealers.

Last year overall violence and property crimes reported to police dropped by significant percentages — 20% and 36%, respectively — while the low-level arrest policy was implemented due to COVID. That decline continues this year. While Mosby said the drop can’t be attributed to her prosecution policy, the statistics show the policy did not have a negative effect, either.

Voicing concerns

At monthly Zoom and Facebook meetings between Baltimore police commanders and neighborhood associations, residents don’t talk about crime data or studies. Many complain that the lack of police enforcement is hurting their quality of life.

Jay Steinmetz, a business owner, said during a Highlandtown meeting that people “use our building as a toilet” and can be seen trying car door handles. Public defecation and “rogue and vagabond,” a charge that can be brought for people attempting to break into cars, are among the charges no longer being pursued.

“We cannot continue to have this. You tell me what to do. Do I call police? Do I call some other special number? What is the protocol?” he asked.

Mosby said the mayor’s office had a plan “in motion” to divert such calls to Baltimore Crisis Response Inc. But that’s not entirely true.

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The city is nearing a pilot program to divert particular mental health calls to BCRI. The pilot would involve less than 10% — an expected 1,200 — of the 13,000 mental health 911 calls fielded each year.

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Officials are exploring other diversion options involving other community-based groups, but those conversations are in the early stages and do not have funding.

BCRI Executive Director Edgar K. Wiggins stressed that his organization has limited resources. His workers respond to people in crisis and offer voluntary services.

“We are not a psychiatric SWAT team,” he said. “I think it’s very important to me to be clear about the parameters of what we can and what we can’t do.”

In the meantime, Baltimore Police say they’ll show up to nuisance calls and try to work out the problem without an arrest. Oftentimes, an officer can resolve neighbors’ concerns simply by showing up, taking stock of the scene and talking to people, Deputy Commissioner Michael Sullivan said.

“Nothing’s changed. If people have a community concern, they should reach out and call the police,” he said. “People call us all the time for suspicious activity, and we want them to continue.”

Ardelia Wilson, who lives in the Edmondson Village area, supports the policy. “One of the things I like about it is it’s not filling up our jails with little Black boys for something that they do not need to be arrested for,” she said. “To me it’s a health problem and I feel that they should come up with some program so these young men can become productive individuals.”

Others have tried

Drug decriminalization tends to occur along with a broader embrace of public health initiatives. In Portugal, where dealing remains illegal and those found with drugs are referred to treatment, overdose deaths have fallen, as have new cases of disease associated with injections. More people are receiving treatment.

Oregon’s decriminalization this year is tied to increased funds for mental health treatment, alcohol and drug abuse prevention and early intervention and treatment.

That isn’t happening here. Mosby is unable on her own to redirect money for treatment and counseling, and Mayor Scott’s budget increases the police budget by 5%, rather than the cut he has been talking about, which would help fund other health-based programs.

Asked about coordination with Mosby, Scott’s office provided a detailed statement about his efforts to improve public health responses but made no mention of Mosby or the prosecution policy: “Less than five months into his term, Mayor Scott is doing the foundational work and building consensus with a sense of urgency. The Mayor continues to boldly support a comprehensive, public-health focused strategy to address violence and make Baltimore neighborhoods safer.”

Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, through a spokesman declined to comment for this article.

Sherman, the Hopkins researcher, praised Mosby for doing what’s right even if the city isn’t ready. “You could wait for everything to be ready and not have the will for this to happen. This paves the way,” she said.

In the past year, fatal opioid overdoses in Baltimore have reached a record high, and are at a rate almost three times higher than the number of homicides. Overdose deaths were up 12% in Baltimore last year, to 954, while the number of people being referred to treatment through drug court is just 25-percent of what it was a decade ago.

At a meeting earlier in April of Southern District residents, Lt. Eric Leitch sympathized with Brooklyn neighbors who said shootings seemed to be out of control. “It’s awful now. We’ve never seen as many [drug dealers and gangs] as we are seeing now,” he said. “We understand how bad it is, and we are working with our federal partners to hopefully see better results.”

Deputy State’s Attorney Jan Bledsoe said during the Highlandtown meeting that while prosecutors want to continue to go after drug dealers, they’re dependent on police — and the community — to make the cases. “You guys know we’re not the ones who make the arrests, right?” she said. “We would love to prosecute [drug dealing]. In order to prosecute, you have to have evidence, and in order to have evidence, people need to call police and report what they see.”

At virtual meetings with police across the city, residents and neighborhood leaders said they cared less about policy than how decisions affected their lives.

Art Estopinan worked on Capitol Hill as a Republican aide in Congress and says he and his wife moved to Baltimore so their son could receive treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital. They live in Canton, but he also purchased investment properties in the Highlandtown area.

“Let me tell you, my tenants are scared,” Estopinan told Mosby. “I mean, this is a disaster. This is a disgrace.”

Mosby smiled. “You’re absolutely right,” she said. “What we’ve been doing for decades, prior to this [past] year, has not been working. It has not made us any safer. What we’ve been doing is thinking we can default to arresting our way out of the situation.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Jessica Anderson, Tim Prudente and Phillip Jackson contributed to this article.

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