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Editorial: A call to arms! MSBA should establish a Drug Policy Project

The Maryland State Bar Association must turn its attention to the problems associated with the sale and use of illegal drugs. The MSBA is urged to establish a Drug Policy Project to study Maryland’s current law and practice in drug abuse prevention, drug addiction treatment, and the use of criminal sanctions. The King County Bar Association and the Massachusetts Bar Association completed such reports. Several other bar associations are in the process of completing reports on the state of the “War on Drugs” in states around the country, including Texas, Georgia, New Mexico and Tennessee.

Why do we care?

The “War on Drugs” diverts a huge percentage of our judicial and public safety resources, yet has failed to increase public safety. In Maryland, police estimate that drugs are involved in nearly three-quarters of the City’s murders and in nearly all serious crimes — about 85 percent of all felonies.

According to the Division of Pretrial Detention Services, 80 percent of the people processed at the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Facility report that they engage in drug use. Nevertheless, most inmates do not receive drug treatment during or after incarceration.

And so, year after year, perhaps the single fundamental issue driving crime, violence, and recidivism in the state — addiction — is left untreated inside the state’s correctional facilities. Untreated, it only becomes a bigger problem.

The cost of the drug war

The social and health costs to society of illicit drug use are staggering. Drug-related illness, death, and crime cost the nation approximately $66.9 billion annually. Every man, woman and child in America pays nearly $1,000 every year to cover the expense of unnecessary health care, extra law enforcement, auto accidents, crime and lost productivity resulting from substance abuse. Illicit drug use hurts families, businesses and neighborhoods; impedes education; and chokes criminal justice, health and social service systems.

For example, despite assurances from law enforcement that violent crime, and crime overall, is decreasing, Maryland has increased the amount of tax dollars spent on incarceration and decreased spending for other governmental functions, such as education. In 1990, Maryland was spending twice as much on its universities as its prisons. For Fiscal Year 2011 the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services’ budget is almost equal to what the state spends on its entire state university system.

A slight reduction in the Maryland prison population — approximately 1,000 persons — would permit the closing of a correctional facility, saving the state up to $10 million a year.

Treating instead of incarcerating nonviolent drug addicts saves reform-minded states tens of millions of dollars:

  • Michigan: $41 million in its first year;
  • Washington: $45 million per year;
  • New York: $21 million per year;
  • Ohio: $40 million per year;
  • Texas: $30 million over 5 years;
  • Kansas: $6 million per year;
  • Mississippi: $12 million per year;
  • Colorado: $ 27 million over 5 years.

California reduced its prison population by 27.4 percent (5,511 fewer inmates) in less than 5 years. A similar reduction in Maryland would reap $110 million.

History repeats itself

This is not the first time “getting tough” on a dangerous substance reduced public safety. No one would argue that prohibition of alcohol (1920-1933) was a success. Indeed, serious crimes gradually declined over much of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Until, that is, the Eighteenth Amendment took effect. Almost overnight, serious crimes increased by 24 per cent in 30 major U.S. cities. During the 1920s the homicide rate increased 78 percent, more money was spent on police, more people were arrested for drunkenness and disorderly conduct and drunk driving. After an initial decrease in the consumption of alcohol following its criminalization, the per capita consumption quickly grew to exceed pre-Prohibition levels.

Sound familiar?

Speak out!

One or two of our local legislators acknowledge that this war, like Prohibition, is a lost cause. The great majority, however, remain silent, perhaps because they do not understand the issue or perhaps because they are afraid of appearing “soft on crime.”

For the most part, the silence on this issue is deafening. It is time for the Bar to break this silence. It is time for the Bar to take leadership of this issue. It is time for the Bar to bring together community leaders and other stakeholders to evaluate Maryland’s current policy regarding drug abuse prevention, drug addiction treatment and the use of criminal sanctions.