Kurt Schmoke

Dean, Howard University Law School
Former Baltimore Mayor

Kurt Schmoke: A Seer Before his Time

Former Mayor Speaks at OSI-Baltimore Event

This summer, newspapers around the world reported on a meeting of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. The 19-member commission includes such leaders as former UN chief Kofi Annan and former US official George Schultz, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve Paul Volcker, former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia and the Greek prime minister, George Papandreou. They all concluded--without reservation--that the "global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world."

But this pronouncement is a realization made over twenty years ago by a young rising star, then-mayor of Baltimore Kurt Schmoke.

Schmoke, now dean of Howard University Law School, shared his thoughts and reflections at an OSI-Baltimore event in July at Galerie Myrtis on Charles Street. He talked of his experience as district attorney in Baltimore, before he was elected mayor, noting that at the time, he was a "drug warrior--throwing people in jail for drug crimes."

For years, heroin was a problem in Baltimore, concentrated in two localized areas in east and west Baltimore and, by and large, used by adults. But in the late 1980s and early 90s, crack came to the city and changed everything. When crack arrived, the homicide rate soared to its highest level ever at 315, compared to an annual rate of 200-225.

"Crack not only creates an immediate high," Schmoke said, "but it's easy to get rich on it. And so as I always argued, we got young people in our community addicted to drug money, not only drug consumption. It was the money issue--it was the profit--it was the war over turf to distribute crack and other drugs that created a dramatic spike in our drug problem."

Former Mayor Speaks at OSI-Baltimore Event

The death of a colleague from the police department, Marty Ward, made Schmoke change his views on drug policy. Ward, on an undercover raid and wearing a wire, was killed by a young drug dealer. After listening to the recording of Ward's death over and over again, Schmoke concluded that the dealer who shot Ward was hooked more on the money than drugs themselves.

"I concluded [that] if we could figure out a way to take the profit out of distributing drugs on the street level, we would make a major change not only in Baltimore but across the country," he said.

Schmoke was the first public official in the country who stated that drug addiction should be treated as a public health issue and not a criminal justice issue. His views were widely misrepresented by the press that claimed he wanted to legalize drugs. In his first public statement on the subject, made at a conference of mayors and police chiefs in Washington DC, Schmoke said that he believed "we'd come to a point in our country where we should consider the decriminalization of drugs."

By the time he drove the 40 miles back to Baltimore, the Associated Press was running a story with the headline, "Baltimore Mayor proposes Legalizing Drugs," and the word "legalize" stayed with the story as it spread across the country.

That event, he says, taught him about choosing your words carefully in political discourse. "Had I used a different word, I might not have been on the defensive. Instead, I was immediately engaged in a debate here and nationally."

After the media debacle, Schmoke changed the way he spoke about his ideas about drugs. The questions he asked community members repeatedly in meetings throughout Baltimore are surprisingly relevant today. He asked:

  1. Do you think we have won the war on drugs?
  2. Do you think we are winning the war on drugs?
  3. Do you think that doing more of the same for the next decade will win the war on drugs?
  4. If you can't answer 'yes' to all of these questions, would you be open to consider the alternatives?

These questions are as relevant today as they were twenty years ago.

Under the Schmoke administration, working closely with Peter Beilenson, then the Baltimore City Health Commissioner, many changes were made to make addiction treatment accessible and available. His administration's other achievements included improving the environment of low-income housing projects, a needle-exchange program, keeping the tax rate stable, and attracting the Ravens football team to Baltimore. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush awarded him the national Literacy Award for his efforts to promote adult literacy, and in 1994 President Bill Clinton cited Baltimore's programs to improve public housing and enhance community economic development and named Baltimore one of six cities to receive Empowerment Zone designation.

Schmoke is credited, among his other achievements, of helping to convince George Soros and Aryeh Neier of the Open Society Foundations to open its only field office, Open Society Institute-Baltimore, in this city. Working in partnership with the city, state, and philanthropic organizations led by OSI, Baltimore more than doubled--from $16 million to $35 million--the amount of money it put into drug treatment. It is now obvious that Kurt Schmoke was a real visionary whose ideas were too early for others to consider at a very different time in history.

*To read more, check out The Philanthropy of George Soros: Building Open Societies by Chuck Sudetic, which includes a chapter entitled "The Baltimore Experiment."