Decriminalization of low-level drug possession and sex work is a public health-centered approach, which aligns with the goals of public safety (“Baltimore State’s Attorney Mosby to stop prosecuting drug possession, prostitution, other crimes amid coronavirus,” March 18). Paradoxically, the prevailing “war on drugs” strategy has been to arrest vulnerable populations who use drugs and engage in sex work, compounding many of the circumstances which may perpetuate both drug use and sex work, and positioning law enforcement and the public health community at odds with each other.
The high toll exacted on America’s inner cities, and particularly communities of color, has been starkly apparent in Baltimore which has among the highest incarceration rates nationwide. In many ways, the Coronavirus Disease 19 (COVID-19) pandemic, which has claimed thousands of lives globally to date, is also likely to disproportionately burden urban low-income communities of color — individuals with lower access to full-time employment, paid sick leave, healthcare, child care and stable housing — following the same fault lines that are drawn by America’s criminal justice system.
In an effort to reduce the potentially explosive rates of coronavirus in the Baltimore City Detention Center and Maryland prisons, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby ordered her staff Wednesday to dismiss pending criminal charges against anyone arrested for drug possession, attempted distribution, prostitution, trespassing, minor traffic offenses, open container and urinating in public. She also sent a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan urging him to set free all inmates over the age of 60 in state prisons, anyone approved for parole, and all prisoners scheduled to complete their sentences within the next year.
The incarceration epidemic of vulnerable individuals facing addiction and engaging in survival sex work, often resulting from extensive trauma, is criminal in itself. This epidemic has overwhelmingly been waged on brown and black people who are caught in the endless cycle of political promises of making communities “safer” through their arrest and imprisonment. Decriminalization of low-level drug offenses and sex work would allows for addressing these issues from a more humane harm reduction and public health perspective, one that allows for addressing root causes such as sexual and physical trauma, poverty, hunger and mental health issues. In this unprecedented time that will stretch the very fabric of our society and attenuate our social safety net, State’s Attorney’s Mosby’s action not to prosecute is commendable and humane — and a first step.
As public health researchers and advocates who have collectively documented the far-reaching impact of the war on drugs on Baltimore City for over 25 years, we strongly urge Gov. Larry Hogan to support these efforts here and encourage them elsewhere in the state, as well as grant clemency and commute sentences. Stopping arrests for these “offenses” could both minimize the continued impact of the war on drugs and reduce contact that is associated with spreading the coronavirus. It is always the right time to enact sane drug policy but the stakes are higher now more than ever.
Susan Sherman, Saba Rouhani and Ju Park, Baltimore
The writers are researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
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