When Gov. Larry Hogan's task force on heroin overdose deaths met at the University of Baltimore last week, the panel was greeted by the school's newly installed president, Kurt Schmoke, a former Baltimore mayor with plenty of experience coping with the city's heroin epidemic. More than 20 years ago Mr. Schmoke sparked a nationwide debate over his then-controversial idea that the so-called "war on drugs" was as much a public health crisis as a criminal justice matter. For his trouble Mr. Schmoke was ridiculed for being soft on crime, but the passage of time has vindicated his view.
"I'm pleased by the tone of the comments I'm hearing today from county executives like Alan Kittleman, Steven Schuh and Kevin Kamentez," Mr. Schmoke said recently. "They're talking a good balance of public health and criminal justice as a way to approach this problem. That's something I wasn't hearing 25 years ago."
At the University of Baltimore gathering, Mr. Schmoke emphasized coping with the state's dramatic increase in heroin overdoses would require a combination of strategies. "We need to do a variety of things," he noted. "Treatment works for some people, but we need to recognize that everyone is different and a lot of people are still going to relapse, just as people addicted to alcohol or tobacco relapse. Nevertheless, there still there should be some expansion of treatment programs."
In that regard Mr. Schmoke is a strong believer in the value of medical expertise in combating addiction. "There are only a few schools that certify people as addiction specialists," he said. "If you have more people with that expertise, along with changes in state law so that physicians could treat addicts in their offices rather than only in treatment clinics, you could dramatically expand the kinds of therapies available to people" because there wouldn't be so much community opposition to locating drug clinics in local neighborhoods. Mr. Schmoke thinks such a change in the law would be relatively easy to accomplish.
The former mayor also believes the state should make it easier for recovering addicts to expunge a criminal record for drug offenses committed earlier in life. "Expunging a prior drug conviction is important to give people a second chance," he says. "Now even states that have expungement laws, they don't cover addiction, and anyone can go on the Internet and find out if they have ever been convicted. We need to find a way to truly expunge the records of people who have paid their debt to society are trying to start their lives over."
Mr. Schmoke thinks that Maryland's law legalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana was a step in the right direction but that the issue needs to approached "slowly and carefully." He says that's because "someone will always abuse it, some one will sell it to an underage kid. We've got to find a balance between recognizing that use in your home is a private matter but using it on the street is public business." He likens the limited private use of marijuana to laws that permit alcohol consumption at home but not drunk driving on the highway. "The move to legalization is a right thing to do but we need to be clear about what the goal is and also recognize there's a role for law enforcement if you use it in public," he said.
Mr. Schmoke returned to lead the University of Baltimore after 12 years at Howard University in Washington, nine of which he spent as dean of the law school and the last three as interim provost and general counsel. He said he learned a lot about the problems of managing institutions of higher education and that the experience will stand him in good stead as UB's president. "I have always been a supporter of life-long learning, which was why I was so eager take this job, because it has a huge impact on quality of life in the whole community," he said.
The former mayor said he's especially excited about the school's program to train a new generation of leaders in the community at UB's Schaefer Center and to continue to build on his predecessor's legacy of building world-class architecture on the city's skyline with the planned renovation of the school's library. He also wants to find ways to partner with other institutions in the area to expand the school's mission. "We think we can collaborate with Coppin State University and Baltimore City Community college in a lot of different ways to serve this community because we are the university for Baltimore as well as the University of Baltimore."
It's a coincidence, of course, that Governor Hogan has launched a statewide conversation about heroin addiction at the same time that Mr. Schmoke has returned to Baltimore. But it serves as a reminder of what a forward-thinking leader Mr. Schmoke was two decades ago, and what a forward-looking leader he remains today.