Rodricks: Baltimore should call off the war on drugs

Would Baltimore be better off if we called off the war on drugs? Yes. There would almost certainly be less violence here. The downside: Barring a sudden and significant change in the city’s economic base that could lead to more jobs for men who have been involved in the illegal narcotics trade, we would still have too many neighborhoods with open-air drug markets.

But first things first. Let’s deal with the violence.


The violence remains Baltimore’s most immediate and pressing problem; we are internationally known for it.

Fortunately, Baltimore is also internationally known for Johns Hopkins — the university and the medical institution.

Baltimore’s highest-ever per capita homicide rate in 2017 also made it the deadliest big city in the country, USA Today reported Monday.

And, within Johns Hopkins, there is the Center for Gun Policy and Research, perhaps the leading program of its kind. Its scholars and associates dive deeply into data about gun violence, providing reliable analysis of trends and highlighting best practices for preventing more death and injury. They study gun violence in its various forms: Mass shootings, domestic-partner assault, street killings like those we’re so sick of seeing in Baltimore.

One of a zillion noteworthy points in the center’s most recent study on Baltimore jumped off the page: General police crackdowns on drug possession and sales tend to lead to more gun violence, not less. Looking at month-to-month trends in specific police posts across the city over several years, the researchers found that a higher number of shootings followed an increase in drug arrests.

“Although surges in arrests for illegal drug distribution may have a very short-term, violence-reducing effect in an area,” the report says, “there appear to be violence-generating effects up to a year after these drug arrest surges.”

Daniel Webster, the center’s director and the study’s lead author, says general efforts to make arrests on drug charges might clear corners for a time, but the disruption in a given drug market causes a push-and-shove among dealers as they vie for customers.

“You are not going to remove the drug trade,” he says. “The idea that you can lower violence by curtailing the drug trade is foolhardy.”

Webster’s report adds this: “The powerful market forces at play — a high demand for illegal drugs in a city where addiction is highly prevalent and a large supply of labor exists, with many individuals willing to engage in very dangerous work due to the lack of legal employment opportunities for individuals with criminal histories — and available research evidence suggest that drug law enforcement efforts rarely have lasting positive impacts on violence.”


This does not mean the police should stop making drug arrests altogether. (Baltimore police have been making fewer arrests for several years now.)

But it means they must make better arrests, with the heavy focus on violent repeat offenders. We’ve heard this before — “bad guys with guns” — but the Johns Hopkins report makes the point convincingly with data.

“It means you’re not going to allow people engaged in violence to be in the drug trade,” Webster says. “You don’t need drug laws to go after violent offenders.”

The trial of two detectives was about police corruption, but it provided a window into just how pervasively drugs flow through Baltimore. From a homeless man's storage unit to a waterfront condo in Canton to an elite police unit, the drug trade reaches far and wide in Baltimore.

The Johns Hopkins team studied various initiatives that have been employed to stem violence in Baltimore. The report concluded that, between 2007 and 2012, the BPD’s Violent Crime Impact Section, or VCIS, had the most success. It was a “hot spots” program that sent plainclothes detectives into violent neighborhoods to focus on illegal firearms and people with a history of gun offenses.

Some members of the VCIS generated several abuse complaints and lawsuits against the city, and the Johns Hopkins report addresses that. Webster, mindful of public reaction to the horrors of another special unit — the notorious and now-disbanded Gun Trace Task Force — made clear that, if the strategy is to be used again, it must be done by the book.

“Our research presents good evidence that VCIS contributed to reductions in nonfatal shootings and homicides,” Webster wrote in an email. “Our report notes the harms that VCIS officers caused and states strongly that these units, or proactive gun law enforcement generally, must be carried out in ways that are legal and acceptable to the communities they serve. Otherwise the harms they bring are far greater than any benefits.”


It might seem crazy to even talk about reviving something that many Baltimoreans have come to despise. But many Baltimoreans are eager to see the surge in violence end.

If you go by the data, as Webster and his staff have done, then you would conclude that a focus on violent offenders — mostly men, and men most likely to use a gun — should be the BPD’s prime strategy. And the approach should be holistic. Getting guys to put down their guns should involve probation agents, social workers, health workers and re-entry counselors.

Given Baltimore’s condition, this focus on violence makes more sense than having police chase low-level drug dealers. If we needed further proof of the futility of the war on drugs, the GTTF revelations provided it in a visceral way. The Johns Hopkins report provides hard evidence.