Scandal at jail another symptom of war on drugs

Modern prohibition at root of killings and corruption

Baltimore City Detention Center

Outside the Baltimore City Detention Center (Baltimore Sun photo by Robert K. Hamilton / April 23, 2013)

Let me start with this: If not for the absurd war on drugs — by far, the nation's longest war — we would not have had so many killings on the streets of Baltimore over the years.

The United States leads the world in incarceration. Without the war on drugs, thousands of men and women would be home with their families instead of in cellblocks; they might even be employed. There would be less social dysfunction and community upheaval. There would be less crime overall.

If not for the war on drugs, now in its fifth decade, we would not have gangsters, like the reputed Black Guerrilla Family leaders Eric Brown and Tavon White.

We would not have so many prison guards, like those from the Maryland Transition Center in 2009 and now the Baltimore Detention Center, accused of helping gangsters like Brown and White conduct criminal enterprises from behind bars while brazenly treating the staff like a harem.

If not for prohibition — against marijuana, heroin and cocaine — we wouldn't have the scandal at La Bastille Tavon and another grand example of lousy leadership and government ineptitude.

Many Baltimoreans, weary, jaded and downright depressed from so many drug-related deaths over the years, look upon our latest criminal justice sideshow — 25 people, including 13 correctional officers, indicted in the BGF/BCDC case — and trace its roots to public policy: a long and costly war on drug dealers and the people, largely poor, who use and become addicted to what they sell.

When it comes to the consequences, most of us think of the waste of human life first: All those deaths over the years, with estimates of their relationship to drug commerce placed as high as 50 percent. The estimates have a wide range because "drug-related" could mean a lot of things: executions carried out by dealers, killings by people trying to rob others for money for drugs, deaths (including suicides) of people under the influence.

You can be reasonably certain that many of these deaths would not have happened — and would not still be happening — if drugs had been made legal years ago and controlled in the way we control beer and booze.

Even with some 300 million guns, we would not have seen the long arc of urban violence that hit this country over the last 40 years, and particularly the last 25.

You know this already.

Most Americans, in numerous surveys, have told pollsters they regard the war on drugs to be an utter failure. The Drug Enforcement Administration turns 40 years old on July 1, and what have we to show for it? Annual costs – in health care, productivity loss, crime, incarceration and drug enforcement — of about $180 billion, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Another cost of the war is manifest in the rise and enduring power of gangsters and their corrupting influence. White's alleged power grab at the BCDC, under the noses of at least three wardens, is outrageous in its boldness and duration — it started almost as soon as he entered the jail in 2009 — but not terribly surprising to anyone who understands human nature.

Do the math of drug commerce: A kilo of cocaine can cost up to $40,000 in Baltimore while, depending on its quality and the sales acumen of the dealer, a gram of heroin can fetch between $40 to $100.

There's too much money to be made by those with the desire or desperation to get involved. We've been saying this for years — not enough jobs, not enough opportunities for young adults in the city. No wonder they slip into the drug life.

According to the Los Angeles Times, a survey of more than 420 men in Afghanistan in 2010 asked why they thought other Afghan men joined the Taliban. Close to 60 percent said: "Jobs or money." The Taliban pays young men handsomely for planting a bomb — 20 times what they can make from jobs that they cannot find, according to the Times.

"If all Afghans had good jobs, if we had peace and stability, we would not go for the fight," Ahmad Mokhtar, jailed for building a roadside bomb, told Times reporter Kenneth Weiss last year.

Without those things, he said, "the jihad will continue to the end of the world."

Without those things, the U.S. war on drugs will continue, and gangsters will continue to recruit young men, kill when they have to, and corrupt their jailers. That's no leap — from Afghanistan and Taliban to Baltimore and the Black Guerrilla Family — it's merely a business model.

Think what this country could do with the billions spent on law enforcement and incarceration because of the war on drugs: treatment on demand, vocational training, a transfer of money and resources for investment in real job creation.

We don't know what decriminalization would lead to — perhaps more people using heroin and cocaine and smoking marijuana than at present. But who really thinks postwar America and Baltimore could look any worse that it has during all these years of constant killings and mass incarceration?

drodricks@baltsun.com

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