Over three decades ago, political and health policy leaders in Baltimore — including then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke — sounded the alarm about the failures of the federal government’s war on drugs. The harms done by this modern version of prohibition were acutely and disproportionately felt in communities of color. Calls for converting the war on drugs to a public health approach were met with derision.
I was only 8 years old and living in another city when Mayor Schmoke called into question the war on drugs in Baltimore in 1988. But I witnessed in real time, the violence and trauma associated with this war when one of my cousins was killed outside our Boston home in broad daylight after he was mistaken for a neighborhood drug distributor, and when my other cousin was sent to prison for attempted murder following a drug dispute. Growing up in the ’90s, addiction infiltrated my family, and I personally bore witness to, and was impacted by, the stigmatizing lack of compassion and default criminalization of substance use disorder.
Informed by these and other experiences, in March 2020, as COVID-19 took hold, I decided, as Baltimore State’s Attorney, to stop prosecuting low-level offenses like drug possession and sex work. The impetus was to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails by slowing the number of people entering the system. One year later, we analyzed the data. Drug arrests are down 80%. The overall incarcerated population in Baltimore City is down 18% (around 3,300 people fewer). There has been a 39% reduction (8,652 people) in people entering the criminal justice system compared to this time last year. And, unlike many American cities, we saw a 20% reduction in violent crime and a 36% reduction in property crime, something we attribute to our partners in the police department, who have also committed to continuing this approach.
A preliminary analysis of the data by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health showed that 911 calls (a proxy for public concern) about drug use, public intoxication and sex work went down. Further, of the nearly 1,500 individuals where we eliminated their warrants or dismissed charges, only 0.3% (5 individuals) were arrested for any other crime during the 8-month period following the policy change. By contrast, Maryland’s recidivism rate is estimated to be around 40%. In short, we were able to draw three conclusions, enabling the policies to become permanent.
First, there is no public safety value and there has never been a public safety value in prosecuting low-level crimes, including mere drug possession, a finding that was buttressed by research released this week in Boston that showed that not prosecuting misdemeanors actually leads to a reduction in other crime.
Second, focusing on these minor offenses is a reckless use of limited resources. As more of the country becomes vaccinated, courts will reopen to a huge backlog. Despite crime slowing in Baltimore, we still have a dreadful homicide rate. Prosecuting victim crimes and killers, not kids smoking weed, will be the focus of my office.
Third, these minor offenses have been and continue to be discriminately enforced against people of color. DOJ’s 2016 report on Baltimore City noted that “There are large racial disparities in BPD’s enforcement of laws criminalizing possession of controlled substances … BPD arrests African Americans for drug possession offenses at rates far exceeding their drug usage … BPD arrests African Americans for drug possession offenses at higher rates than similar cities.” What we know based upon the data is that the prosecution of these low-level offenses that have nothing to do with public safety creates an unnecessary engagement with law enforcement that for Black people in this country, often leads to a death sentence. The killing of Daunte Wright — stopped for allegedly having expired plates during a pandemic — is just the latest example of this.
We have also finally put into place what was being proposed 33 years ago: behavioral health partnerships that address addiction. By way of my office, the mayor’s office and the Baltimore Police Department, we have formed an alliance that will not only meet the needs of individuals suffering from homelessness, mental illness, sexual work and substance use disorder, but will finally be able meet the needs of our communities.
Our country has learned that it is easier to start a war than to end one. We must be clear that not prosecuting drug users will not end the drug war. We need to revisit the harsh sentences that permeated the drug war. We need to support harm reduction approaches such as safe consumption spaces. And, as more jurisdictions dust down the drug war playbook and try to incarcerate their way out of the country’s fentanyl problem, we must be ever-vigilant against backsliding. The drug war was not started in one day, and it will not be undone by one policy, but for now, our city appears to be moving in the right direction.
Marilyn J. Mosby firstname.lastname@example.org is the state’s attorney for Baltimore City. Kurt Schmoke, the mayor of Baltimore City from 1987-1999 and the current president of the University of Baltimore, also contributed to this op-ed.