This year ’ s HRI Constellations event featured a conversation between David Simon , creator of The Wire , and former mayor of Baltimore , Kurt Schmoke , on harm reduction , decriminalisation and the ongoing drug war
‘ problem we had wasn ’ t drugs , but folks being hooked on drug money ,’ Kurt Schmoke , the first African-American mayor of Baltimore , told Constellations . ‘ We need a way of addressing this that would take the profit out of distribution .’
As mayor he ’ d tried to move towards a public health , and away from a criminal justice , approach to drug issues , he said . Although much of this – such as needle exchange programmes – was now mainstream , at the time the reaction had been ‘ that I was crazy and ought to be impeached ’. This was particularly the case when he started to openly discuss decriminalisation , and when he left office in 1999 after 12 years his successor reverted to a hardline approach .
ARMY OF OCCUPATION This shift had destroyed community relations with the police , said author , journalist and creator of the Baltimore-set The Wire , David Simon , as they had effectively become an ‘ army of occupation – and nobody talks to an army of occupation ’. The city ’ s most vulnerable communities were now simultaneously overpoliced and under-policed , he stated . ‘ They ’ re over-policed on that which shouldn ’ t matter , which doesn ’ t involve crimes against persons , and grossly under-policed when it comes to taking the shooters away who are terrorising these neighbourhoods .’
All this ‘ stark period ’ of mass arrests had achieved was to make the city more dangerous , he said , as an entire generation of police had been trained in how to fight a drug war rather than in the skill set needed to investigate violent crime , with the result that the clearance rate for murder had halved . ‘ When you train police to emphasise mass arrest and to credit a drug arrest – as meaningless as it is in a city like Baltimore – as meaningful police work , you ’ re also training a generation of police how not to do the things that you really need police to do .’
The conversation about drug laws , however , was now changing at a local level , said Schmoke , as the explosion of addiction to prescribed drugs like OxyContin meant more and more people knew someone who had a problem – but it remained largely unchanged at a national level . ‘ It ’ s still being driven by politics rather than science .’ The fact that addiction to synthetic opiates had ‘ reached into the white community in a very big way ’ meant that ‘ suddenly the notion of a draconian war on drugs becomes less tenable ’, added Simon , while the era of fentanyl also meant that harm reduction measures like overdose prevention sites were more necessary than ever .
UNSUSTAINABLE VIOLENCE Schmoke had seen the attitudes of some police leaders change over time while he was mayor , he said , with more becoming sympathetic to his ideas . ‘ When police were in the midst of their career they wouldn ’ t speak openly to their cynicism about the drug war , but when they got to the end of their career and looked back they could be blunt as hell ,’ added Simon . ‘ There is a cost to decriminalising drugs because some of them genuinely are dangerous and they will have a negative effect ’ in terms of overdose deaths , he acknowledged . ‘ But doing what we ’ re doing is creating levels of violence that are completely unsustainable for cities .’
The drug war in the US had its origins in demonising the Chinese community in the late 19th century , Simon stated – ‘ the yellow peril of opium ’ – and very little had changed . ‘ The drug war is a function of fear . It works for politicians as an operation that requires and savours the fear of the body politic . And what better fear is there in America than the fear of the other race ? If you ’ re trying to get people to vote out of fear what can work better than , “ These terrible drugs , they ’ re endemic in this other community of people who are not like you , and they ’ re coming for your kids .” That ’ s a raw political message . And the only way you demystify it is by talking about overtly .’ DDN
‘ The drug war is a function of fear ... And the only way you demystify it is by talking about it overtly .’
‘ The fact that synthetic opiate addiction has now reached the white community makes the notion of a draconian war on drugs less tenable .’ KURT SCHMOKE
10 • DRINK AND DRUGS NEWS • NOVEMBER 2022 WWW . DRINKANDDRUGSNEWS . COM