Kurt Schmoke was ahead of his time - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Kurt Schmoke was ahead of his time

BALTIMORE – Maybe America’s finally catching up to Kurt Schmoke.

Three decades ago, when he was starting out as this city’s mayor, Schmoke was one of the first American voices offering an alternative approach to the endless and endlessly failing national War on Drugs.

Maybe the war now consists of a growing sense of common sense – and conscience.

Thirty years ago, Schmoke told us we couldn’t imprison our way out of our narcotics epidemic. We need to think of drug abuse as a disease to be treated more than a crime to be prosecuted. We were dreaming if we thought we could lock people in prison and imagine one day they’d emerge as model citizens.

Kurt Schmoke, 46th Mayor of Baltimore.

We’ve been filling our prisons faster than any nation on earth, and spending untold billions every year, and getting nowhere.

Not many people – at least those in power – wanted to listen to Schmoke. He was up against the endless sloganeering of his era: zero tolerance, and Three Strikes and You’re Out, and Just Say No. Schmoke was mocked, and he was vilified.

In Washington, Rep. Charles Rangel, of Harlem, held hearings out of his Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control. The title of the hearings alone gave an indication they were slanted: “Drug Legalization: Catastrophe for Black Americans.” But the title alone seemed a misnomer.

Schmoke wasn’t calling for legalization. He wanted a change in the country’s intransigent, punitive approach. He only had to look at the ravaged streets of some of his city’s own communities to understand the extent of the damage. This city’s cops were arrested nearly 20,000 people a year on drug charges – and the problem kept growing.

The Rangel-Schmoke disagreement got really nasty one night on national TV, on Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” program, where Schmoke tried to explain his thinking and Rangel stood in his way.

Schmoke barely got words out of his mouth. Rangel, with a voice like the brass section of a band, shouted him down, talked as if Schmoke wanted to litter the streets with junkies.

The mayor walked out of the TV studio that night a beaten man. His voice seemed muted after that fight. It’s taken the country a long time to understand what he was trying to tell us.

Now we’ve got street junkies who know they’re still breaking the law – but there are communities, all over America, where they’re more likely to be turned over to social services, or a drug treatment center, for help instead of reflexively ordered behind bars.

As the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof pointed out the other day, in a column headlined, “Ending the War on Drugs,” such an approach “is becoming the consensus preference among public health experts in the U.S. and abroad…

“The war on drugs has been one of America’s most grievous mistakes,” Kristof wrote, “resulting in as many citizens with arrest records as with college diplomas. At last count, an American was arrested for drug possession every 25 seconds.”

Cynics believe they know the reason America is changing its national conversation and its approach. In the old drug problem, characterized mainly as heroin abuse, the majority of abusers were believed to be black people. In the various centers of white political power, the reaction was to get these dangerous people off the streets for as long as possible.

With the new drug problem – opioids – the perception is that millions of white people are now strangling. Thus, in the various centers of white political power, the reaction is to get these people help.

This is a variation on a theme: the documented statistics in which powered cocaine abusers (believed mostly white) get softer sentences than crack cocaine abusers (believed mostly black).

As Kristof points out, “The number of opioid users has surged, and more Americans now die each year from overdoses than perished in the Vietnam, Afghan and Iraq wars combined. And that doesn’t account for the way drug addiction has ripped apart families and stunted children’s futures. More than two million children in America live with a parent suffering from an illicit-drug dependency.”

Schmoke served three terms as Baltimore’s mayor and now serves as president of the University of Baltimore. He’s had a distinguished career of public service. The tragedy is that so few people listened to him 30 years ago. Imagine the lives that might have been salvaged.

Maybe America’s finally hearing Schmoke’s message.

About the author

Michael Olesker

Michael Olesker, columnist for the News American, Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Examiner has spent a quarter of a century writing about the city he loves.He is the author of five previous books, including Michael Olesker's Baltimore: If You Live Here, You're Home, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, and The Colts' Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s, all published by Johns Hopkins Press. Contact the author.


  1. Jennifer Coates says:

    Yes, Kurt Schmoke is a visionary, a leader. He is still ahead of his time. His current vision to create a interconnected, continuum of higher education services in Baltimore, Maryland makes sense and complements the much needed initiatives and policy changes espoused by the Kirwan Commission to buttress Maryland’s learning environment in order to stabilize and improve educational opportunities and strengthen Maryland’s workforce. I admire his courage for even sharing his vision in such politically volatile arenas. More power to him for speaking up!

  2. giovanna says:

    It’s sad how politics overshadows great ideas…This wonderful man and Mayor was ahead of his time. .What was “Decriminalizing Drugs” was changed to “legalizing drugs” and changed the narrative in those days…Imagine how much more advanced Baltimore eould be today had we begun that strayegy then…Lost time has caused this beautiful city to erode. Thanks Michael, you’respot on…

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