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The case for drug decriminalization in Baltimore

A dynamic city — one that draws us to its intoxicating quirks and charms through the opportunities it provides for human interaction and cultural experiences — is essential to the health and prosperity of the region. And there is much to admire in Baltimore, evident in the infusion of new and often youthful residents and entrepreneurs into city neighborhoods, followed by the businesses and services they patronize. But the continuing problems of our city stunt its well-being and stifle its growth.

Crumbling neighborhoods shrouded in poverty and hopelessness, a failing school system, the lack of efficient mass transit and a deteriorating infrastructure are prominent examples. Yet before any of these and other issues can be meaningfully addressed, there is, first and foremost, the matter of public safety. Without the ability of people to move freely and safely, the city loses its fundamental ability to serve as a welcoming forum for human interactions.

Killings and general violence have become so commonplace that they threaten to be synonymous with Baltimore’s identity. It is generally acknowledged that the overwhelming cause of this violence is the illegal drug trade and its battle for customers and turf. Nevertheless, the consequences are not confined to gangbangers killing gangbangers. Violence begets violence, and a culture of violence in our midst is a societal cancer that desensitizes, degrades and dehumanizes. It holds entire neighborhoods hostage in its malicious grip, recruits acolytes to its brutal ways and spills over into our streets and classrooms.

While neighborhoods are imprisoned in the vicious crossfire, the rest of the community is encased in a spreading cloud of fear that labels the city as unsafe. The drawn-out effort to hire a police chief adds to a growing sense that no one in charge recognizes the urgency or has a plan. Clearly our policies need to change if we are to obtain a different and better result.

The first policy I would change: the more than 40-year-old war on drugs. It has been more than just an utter failure in stemming the drug trade and reducing addiction; it has also burdened us with enormous financial costs for law enforcement and incarceration, and has imposed profound human costs arising from societal stigmas associated with drug use and jail time that serve to inhibit recovery, discourage rehabilitation and foster repeat offenses.

Many well-meaning people work tirelessly against the scourge of drugs and the poverty and inequities that foster its spread. But it is clear that, despite occasional victories, the larger war continues to be lost. This epidemic calls for drastic measures that will require a concerted partnership of all levels of government. It is time to implement a comprehensive decriminalization of low-level possession and consumption of illegal drugs, to consider such activity to constitute an administrative violation and to significantly expand drug treatment.

The goals should be to severely wound the drug trade and deprive it of customers, allow us to massively redirect criminal justice resources, reduce the considerable cost of housing people in jail, make users less fearful of seeking treatment, effectively direct resources to treatment centers and eliminate the social consequences of having received a criminal conviction.

While some will assert that decriminalization will lead to expanded use and related health consequences, that has not been the experience in places like Portugal, where a serious effort was made to change the narrative of drug enforcement. Moreover, the fact that our current model is continually failing is reason enough to employ new methods.

If we recognize that having a healthy city is something that we all should value, then we need to get serious about it.

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a principal in a downtown law firm. His email is rdburke27@gmail.com.

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