The decades-long war on drugs was a big mistake. We sent hundreds of thousands of men and women to jail and prison for drug crimes when we could have been helping more of them end their addictions. Cracking down on the supply and use of drugs, from marijuana to heroin, had little effect on the demand for them.
In Baltimore, the Justice Department found a severe racial disparity in drug possession enforcement, with Black Baltimoreans five times more likely to be arrested than others. The war on drugs helped make us the global leader in incarceration. It stuck thousands of drug users with criminal records, making their adjustment to life after prison much harder than it should have been.
Drug addiction among our fellow Baltimoreans was a public health crisis that needed a massive, well-funded public health response. We should have turned a prison into a hospital years ago.
In 2008, a group of Maryland judges, speaking candidly and off the record for an opinion survey, expressed frustration with having to deal with defendants who were addicted to drugs and needed treatment, not jail. The judges blamed tough-on-crime politicians for the continuation of the war on drugs.
So this year, when Marilyn Mosby, the Baltimore State’s Attorney, declared that her staff would no longer prosecute drug possession cases, how could we knock the intent? It’s the reform we’ve been looking for: Once and for all, stop sending drug addicts to jail, give them more opportunities for treatment and free up the police to pursue more serious crimes in one of the nation’s most violent cities. Mosby has pledged to work with the mayor’s office, the city’s health department, Baltimore Crisis Response, Inc. and other agencies to coordinate a better-funded, health-driven approach to problems that should not be the realm of police.
But here’s a question I had: If police do not arrest people for drug possession, how do we get them into treatment?
Baltimore has had drug treatment courts for a couple of decades. Defendants are given the option of avoiding jail by agreeing to probation with intense supervision and therapy for their addictions. I came to believe this system was the best we have for breaking the depressing cycle of addiction, criminality and incarceration.
Turns out, it might be overrated.
Michael Collins, Mosby’s policy director, says the fundamental idea of using the criminal justice system to deal with a public health crisis is misguided. Drug court, in particular, shows its limitations. “We were not getting the numbers,” Collins says of the court’s enrollment. “Simply put, the defendants would rather do the jail time than do the two years of intense probation and treatment. I think that speaks to the limitations of compulsory and coercive treatment.
“Studies show that coercive treatment does not work, especially through the criminal justice system. You really have to try and meet people where they are [through outreach]. Treatment, whether for alcohol or drugs, will work better more often than not when the person is ready.”
This does not mean an end to drug court, Collins adds, but rather an expansion of it. Defendants who commit crimes related to drug abuse — “adjacent crimes,” such as theft, burglary, robbery — should also be eligible.
Collins, long experienced in drug policy in the U.S. and abroad, says his advice to Mosby is based on data and the experience of progressive prosecutors in other cities. One of the conclusions: Putting drug addicts through the criminal justice system does more harm than good. Overdose rates, for instance, have hit historically high levels both inside and outside of prisons. “If you go to jail and go cold turkey and then you [come] out, and if you use drugs at the same rate as you were using before, that’s a recipe for an overdose,” Collins says.
So the idea now is to leave drug addiction to public health experts and focus prosecution on more serious crimes. That includes drug dealing. The law against distribution is still being enforced, under careful oversight by police commanders, according to Police Commissioner Michael Harrison.
In theory, if police are focused on more serious crimes, Baltimoreans should start to see — expect to see — a decrease in the city’s sickening level of violence. There should be a peace dividend to the end of the war on drugs. This is not just a new police strategy, but a fundamental shift in resources and priorities to get the city to a better place.
“We had reached the conclusion that what we were doing wasn’t having any real public safety benefit,” Collins says of the drug war. “The opioid crisis is a public health crisis, and that means people with drug use issues do not belong in the criminal justice system. Prosecutors and judges are not public health officials. Judges should not be making decisions about the length of somebody’s treatment or the type of treatment they should get.”
I argued years ago that Baltimore needed a small army of social workers for a breakthrough on homelessness, drug addiction and other problems too often left to police, prosecutors and the courts.
Latest Dan Rodricks
“We are not the best people to do that,” says Collins. “But we want to help those who are. We’re not simply throwing up our hands and saying we don’t want anything to do with this anymore. We absolutely do. We care about the overdose crisis. But we don’t believe that our office is going to fix that problem. We need a more holistic, public health approach.”