The support that Maryland voters gave to Question 4, the cannabis legalization issue, reminded me that major policy change often happens in a way that feels more like running a marathon, rather than a hundred-yard dash.
Back in the last century, as my students like to say — actually, it was 1988 — I gave a speech to a joint meeting of big-city mayors and chiefs of police in which I proposed that the country should consider the decriminalization of drugs, including cannabis. The overwhelming response to that speech was a combination of scorn, derision and dismissiveness. For elected officials and the public back then, the view was that the problems associated with drugs could be resolved through increased arrests and prosecutions. That approach meant tougher laws, at both the state and federal levels, that resulted in what is now seen as the problem of mass incarceration. But at that time, the national consensus was that the drug problem was, first and last, a crime problem.
My view was different from the national consensus. I came to it through both troubling experience and enlightening reading. The troubling experience was the aftermath of the death of a Baltimore police officer, Marty Ward, who was working undercover when a drug bust went bad and the drug dealer shot and killed him. The officer was wearing a body wire. It was my responsibility, as state’s attorney for Baltimore, to listen to the recording to determine whether the state should seek the death penalty for that drug dealer.
As I listened to the callous comments of the drug dealer after he shot the officer, I began to think that what we faced in society were people hooked on drug money as well as people hooked on drugs. I started to think that the only way we were going to mitigate the problems associated with drug abuse was to take the profit out of distributing drugs at the street level.
So, I began to explore alternatives to the war on drugs as it was being waged at that time. I read the research of then Professor Ethan Nadelmann, which led me to the work of August Vollmer, a former police chief who, in the early 1920s, served as president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Back in 1928, Vollmer said this: “Like prostitution and like liquor, drug use was not a police problem, it never has been and never can be solved by policemen.”
He went on to say that the problem of drug use was, first and last, a medical problem that would be solved by competently trained health professionals. Bottom line: Vollmer was urging society to focus more attention on the demand side rather than the supply side of the problems of substance abuse. Thus, it was ruminations related to the death of Officer Ward and the words of Chief Vollmer that helped me to conclude in 1988 that the war on drugs should be a public health war rather than a criminal justice war.
The public initially did not agree with this assessment. I began speaking out mainly to some very skeptical audiences. To those groups, I always started by asking them to consider three questions:
- Do you think we have won the war on drugs?
- Do you think we are winning the war on drugs?
- Do you think that doing more of the same will win the war on drugs?
Then, my follow-up: If you can’t answer yes to any of those questions, would you be willing to consider an alternative approach to the problems associated with drug abuse? I identified these problems as addiction, AIDS and crime. Slowly, many in the Baltimore community came to the view that two of those three were clearly health problems — not law enforcement problems. But skepticism remained about decriminalization as an appropriate consideration.
In my opinion, what caused a major change in the public’s view of substance abuse was the opioid epidemic. For far too many years, illegal drugs, or “the drug problem,” was viewed as the problem of others. Those others could be of a different race or class. The opioid issue had a different complexion. It was now the neighbors, the families, the friends or children of friends, who were caught up in this difficult situation. Opioid addiction was viewed as a health problem. Even the term “addiction” was not automatically associated with crime.
How a society should respond to substance abuse began to be reevaluated by the public and elected officials. More and more people started to understand that drug policy should be driven by science, not politics. One result of this was a recognition that it made no sense to classify cannabis and heroin in the same category — as federal law continues to do. States have taken the lead in supporting the medical use of cannabis, and now in decriminalizing small amounts of cannabis for personal use by adults.
I applaud the change in rhetoric by elected officials and the favorable votes of citizens striving for the infusion of common sense in drug policy. However, we should be cautious as we reform policies related to cannabis and other currently illegal drugs. We should carefully consider the experiences of other states and countries, such as Portugal and the Netherlands, which have years of experience with cannabis decriminalization.
There will be problems with the implementation of new laws. Clearly, there will be some who will abuse the law. Maryland seems to be taking a studious approach to a new regulatory environment. The public should be comforted by this approach. We should recognize that there are no final victories in the war on drugs. But the direction that Maryland has charted will enhance the chance of success and reduce the extent of societal harm.
Kurt L. Schmoke serves as president of the University of Baltimore. He served as mayor of Baltimore from 1987-1999 and was the Baltimore City state’s attorney from 1982-1987. Prior to becoming UB’s president, he was dean of the Howard University School of Law from 2003-2012. Following that, he was appointed general counsel for Howard and also served as that institution’s interim provost.