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Sun Jan 1, 2012, 07:47 PM

Kurt Schmoke: A Man Ahead of His Time

I don't know how many of you are fans of The Wire. If you've never seen it, I cannot heap enough praise on the show to illustrate how the world works in real time. Sometimes fiction is required to tell the truth.

One man who was an inspiration for part of the series was Kurt Schmoke, the first elected African-American Mayor of Baltimore in 1987 and now Dean of Howard University School of Law.

Even as a young person Schmoke showed leadership beyond most others around him. He volunteered to tutor and mentor inner city kids while in high school. When he attended Yale, he organized a day care center for the children of university janitors and cafeteria workers. He spoke to administrators to ease tensions during student unrest on Yale's campus. After receiving a Rhodes Scholarship and law degree from Harvard, he worked on domestic policy during the Carter administration. He returned to Baltimore and later won election as mayor. He is a true leader - a courageous man who is willing to speak truth to power, whether those powers want to hear it or not.

He is an Open Society thinker. As such:

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."


For this stance, NY's Charles Rangel called Schmoke "the most dangerous man in America."

Rangel was speaking as an insider pol - one unwilling to rock the boat or think outside the box of segregation concerning health care issues. Rangel never disagreed with Schmoke, but Rangel did the political calculus among reactionary Americans.

At the time that Schmoke tried to address real problems in realistic terms, 80% of Americans opposed legal cannabis - this was the era of Reagan's vacuous sound bites - before information was widely available and propaganda was rife. Now, only 46% of Americans, nearly half the number during the corrupt and corrupting Reagan era, oppose full legalization of cannabis. (What was always so interesting about Reagan was his willingness to let the U.S. deal in illegal drugs and money and use this to fund his illegal secret wars...who was the criminal in that situation, honestly?)

This turn around in public perception is no doubt due to better education, to seeing that the sky didn't fall when CA made medical cannabis legal in 1996, and to seeing the real value of medical cannabis for those with certain health problems. A better understanding of the black hole of taxpayer money into such legislation of an unending war no doubt has reached the consciousness of many fiscal conservatives as well.

In a 2008 interview, here's what Schmoke said about the way this nation distorts the issue of drug policy.

KS: What's currently called "illegal drugs" have been distinguished from a formerly illegal drug, alcohol, and demonized in a way alcohol was not during the Prohibition era. The reason I say that is because the "drug problem" is viewed by the majority of our citizens as a "moral issue." The majority know people who have an alcohol problem. When you're talking about drugs, it's "those people," not "us." It's "them." There's a moral element to dealing with the drug problem that's not there with alcohol. So we can take penalties off the distribution of alcohol, but we don't do that with marijuana.

GM: To what extent would drug reform affect the American city?

KS: It would have a huge impact. If you took the profit out of distributing drugs at the street level, you would dramatically reduce the homicide numbers. What's going on in many cities isn't people being hooked on drugs; it's people being hooked on drug money. If you undermine that, it would lead to a reduction in violence. Not the elimination—there's always going to be evil in the world—but (reduction of) this high level tied to drug distribution.


Schmoke understood the real dynamics of the drug war and had the audacity of courage to speak to this issue two decades ago. Taylor Branch, one of the leading historians and journalists of the 20th century, had this to say about Schmoke in 1988, the year Schmoke began his Baltimore mayoral term.

He (Schmoke) said the law itself has turned the inner city into a war zone. Anti-drug enforcement has created a netherworld of stupendous, artificial profit that now sucks children into a deadly version of NBA fool's gold. Legalizing drugs would eliminate this undertow just as swiftly as the repeal of Prohibition wiped out the speakeasy gangsters. "I don't know of any kid who is making money running booze,” said Schmoke.

...Schmoke’s appeal to the logic of Prohibition reminds us how thoroughly we have banished that astonishing drama from historical memory. Prohibition is a lost epoch of tenacious sincerity and forgotten effect. In revolt against the toxic, demoralizing properties of alcohol, Americans sacrificed almost half of all federal revenues (alcohol taxes produced some $240 million in 1916, compared with income taxes of only $68 million), and we cut the booze habit so deeply that per capita alcohol consumption did not regain pre-Prohibition levels until 1970. Yet, we changed our minds, and undid our fundamental instrument of government for the first and only time. For all that, you have to squint to find Prohibition in standard histories as anything more than an “experiment,” leavened by unfortunate but colorful gangland entertainment. We are sensitive about our Puritanism, and especially about our mad lurchings between liberty and repression. Future historians most likely will see the current drug debate as an all-too-human comedy in pain, like the contortions of Prohibition. On no other subject except race are we so evasive about our past, and none other remains so contemporary.

...The problem with legalization, however, is not its practical mechanics (as Rangel suggested). (Then) Surgeon General Everett Koop has shown that in his relatively obscure war on tobacco and alcohol. Koop’s rules of engagement are democratic and simple, You license private distributors carefully and tax the drugs as heavily as possible, ideally to the point just short of creating a criminal black market. You try to ban commercial advertising for harmful drugs, even though their sale is legal, You concentrate police powers on two tasks: prohibiting sales to children, and enforcing strict sanctions against those who cause injury to others while under the influence.

...The legal status of alcohol and tobacco allows Koop to tell people exactly what they are consuming, and what the risks are. With street drugs, purity and contents are guesswork for the government and Len Bias alike. Also, there is no room for Koop’s credible, objective discernment regarding currently illegal drugs because their criminal status almost obliges authority figures to exaggerations of demonology. Officials obscure their own truths in brittle, hysterical cant, as in the extraordinary obsession with professional athletes. Impressionable youths wonder how athletes can perform amazing feats of mental and physical prowess under the influence of drugs that are presented as deadly poisons. The elaborate drug enforcement programs advertise sensitivity and doubt rather than virtue. Public relations and criminal repression lie down poorly together.


By 1993, The Baltimore Sun thought that, perhaps, our national leaders had begun to buy a clue.

After five years of lonely campaigning for the decriminalization of drugs, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke believes people have at least begun to listen.

At community meetings, audiences sound more receptive. And in Washington, Attorney General Janet Reno says that expensive efforts to stop drugs from entering the country have failed to lessen substance abuse and crime. The government, she believes, should be putting its money into more treatment programs for addicts instead of just jail terms.

She doesn't talk about decriminalization, but Mr. Schmoke nonetheless is heartened. "I can sense movement in the country more toward treatment and prevention," he says.

"I view it (legalization of drugs) as a public health regulatory regime, where public health officials -- doctors, physician assistants, nurses -- are specifically authorized to distribute substances of abuse to those addicts at maintenance levels," he says.


Since Schmoke first spoke out, Portugal has tried a ten year experiment in decriminalization. The outcomes are encouraging. Portugal provides real data to counter the fear-of-change mongers.


But, back to The Wire. I've recently watched that series again. If you haven't seen it and don't want to read spoilers, you might want to stop here.

The process by which the police brass came down on Bunny Colvin still rings true - the sad truth that such action was used against one politician - not because the action or policy was good or bad, but because it enabled one pol to score points against another - still rings true - the reality that those whose lives were improved - those who weren't part of the drug scene but lived with the consequences - still rings true. The need to not simply decriminalize but to provide health services for those with addictions who engage in dangerous practices like needle sharing or prostitution still rings true. These things ring true because they are now backed up by real world evidence.

And yet, Schmoke remains one of the few who has been involved in politics who was and is willing to openly discuss ways to improve our society by acknowledging the failures of our past and the possibility of a different future. He's no Ron Paul - Paul would allow society to disintegrate for the sake of a lower tax bill.

What Schmoke talked about was a way to remove the profit from harmful actions so that those in difficult economic and social situations could look beyond crime as a way to elevate themselves in this world.

And for that, he was considered the most dangerous man in American not so very long ago.

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Response to RainDog (Original post)

Sun Jan 1, 2012, 08:02 PM

1. Mayor Schmoke shows us what it means to be a real leader. n/t

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Response to RainDog (Original post)

Sun Jan 1, 2012, 08:10 PM

2. Very good man. But what of the private prison system and the people who vote for it? You know that..

Their employees and stockholders are unwilling to let this system go under they will use any justification to keep it going. This is no longer a matter of public policy but private interests pushing it. And they all vote for the candidates that support their industry.

Don't forget that these corporations are on the stock exchange as great investments, always growing. What can we do about that voting block, with their lobbyists?

A wonderful and humane approach, but look at what it's up against. Great post. Will share and hope it generates reason.

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Response to freshwest (Reply #2)

Sun Jan 1, 2012, 08:24 PM

3. thanks

I guess the reason I identify as a politically progressive person is that I think we can overcome some of the worst abuses of power. We've seen this happen in the past with trust busting. We've seen this happen in racist social policy.

The problem is that political time is glacial while real time deals with so many trying to dog paddle while the oceans rise.

I don't advocate violence for political change - you always get as much bad as good in the immediate aftermath - but the truth is that, historically, things change two ways - either through an evolution to more justice and fairness or having that justice ripped from the lives of those who oppose it.

I prefer evolution, but since we live in an age of "faster," political evolution needs to respond in a more timely way as well.

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Response to RainDog (Reply #3)

Sun Jan 1, 2012, 09:08 PM

5. I agree, and more information will make a peaceful change.

It's going to take a lot to change the minds of the entrenched interests, is all I'm saying.

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Response to freshwest (Reply #5)

Sun Jan 1, 2012, 10:03 PM

6. I'm hopeful

because I do see changes in public perception.

One thing that wonks need to look at is why Portugal is seeing success in its endeavors while the British did not back in the 70s. I wonder how much money was allocated to treatment programs in GB. I'm just guessing cause I haven't looked at the British experiment, but I would bet the govt didn't invest in health care and harm reduction strategies. I know they didn't provide adequate regulation of doctors who dispensed hard drugs... this isn't about cannabis... this is about hard, dangerous drugs.

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Response to RainDog (Reply #6)

Sun Jan 1, 2012, 10:09 PM

7. Actually, I saw a Moore interview of a British physician saying that they do focus on...

'...harm reduction strategies.' Their salaries are predicated on their success rate with helping their patients live more healthy lifestyles.

But they seem to have gone backward since with recent privatization. Thatcher did do some good things, along with a lot of bad ones in terms of healthcare, or so my friends over there tell me.

I just hope it doesn't take a full implosion of the system to get this back in balance.

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Response to freshwest (Reply #7)

Sun Jan 1, 2012, 10:13 PM

8. now? or back then?

they've changed the law since the 70s

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Response to RainDog (Reply #8)

Sun Jan 1, 2012, 10:26 PM

9. I'll look the video. It was during the healthcare debate. Be back.

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Response to freshwest (Reply #9)

Sun Jan 1, 2012, 10:42 PM

10. RainDog, here it is, from 2007:

Sicko: Michael Moore interviews a Doctor in UK

It doesn't cover illegal drugs specifically, but generally. My friends are happy with NIH, all of them. Thatcher's 'compassionate care' changes made the system more responsive for their situations. Their stories are so different than ours.

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Response to freshwest (Reply #10)

Sun Jan 1, 2012, 11:18 PM

11. thanks!

I'm starting to look back at early British attempts to alter the laws. afaik, they changed the laws after the 70s - I don't know how the current laws compare.

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Response to RainDog (Original post)

Sun Jan 1, 2012, 08:33 PM

4. The 'centrists' will be along shortly to 'discredit him'


for once having lunch with a guy who had an overdue library book in 1983, or some such nonsense.


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Response to RainDog (Original post)

Sun Jan 1, 2012, 11:23 PM

12. I remember him. Glad to hear he is still working productively--

--even if not in the public eye. Excellent retrospective.

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Response to eridani (Reply #12)

Mon Jan 2, 2012, 01:35 AM

13. he's an interesting person

I don't remember him but I was alive at the time.

even tho I don't remember him, I agreed with his position back then - I just didn't bother to state it publicly - like a lot of other people.

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Response to eridani (Reply #12)

Mon Jan 2, 2012, 02:36 AM

14. oh, he wrote something for HuffPo this year

with a Doctor from Maryland who is also a Democratic pol.


"Imagine a civil war that has raged for 40+ years. A war that has claimed tens of thousands of casualties both at home and abroad, destroyed the lives of countless innocent bystanders, turned neighborhoods and in some cases whole regions into killing fields, filled prisons to overflowing, poisoned farmlands and forests, undermined police and government agencies, corrupted multi-national banks and financial companies, funded overseas enemies and terrorists, and despite the tremendous cost in blood and treasure has not advanced the cause for which the war was declared.

Of course we are talking about the so-called War on Drugs, escalated in 1970 by President Richard Nixon, with roots dating back to the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914. Since 1970 the rate of drug use and abuse has not substantially decreased except for minor fluctuations that have never become permanent. In that same time, new drugs have come on the scene to claim new victims, and vast commercial empires have arisen built on drug money.

It's time to ask ourselves if our real goal is to reduce drug abuse or to provide business incentives for drug dealers? Illegal drugs are a global multi-billion dollar industry based almost entirely on illegal drug prohibition.

When our country tried the "noble experiment" of prohibiting alcohol in the 1920's, we learned that however well intended the effort, its effects were anything but noble. In the 13 years that Prohibition lasted, crime syndicates gained a permanent foothold, law enforcement experienced massive corruption, and drinking acquired an outlaw glamor that made it acceptable in places where it had formerly been shunned. This was all built on the profits of a mere 13 years. What have we suffered from the influx of several decades of illegal drug revenues?"

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Response to RainDog (Original post)

Mon Jan 2, 2012, 02:54 AM

15. Kurt Schmoke was a great mayor for Baltimore--for a reason few people acknowledge.


He got Baltimore's bond rating to A1, and kept it there--high enough that investing in Baltimore city bonds was a sure and profitable bet during his tenure. He built the Inner Harbor, and the two stadiums with that amazing bond rating.

Of course, being a municipal bond attorney probably helped. He tried with all the other stuff, but those reforms were too dependent on others. The bond rating, the financial footing of the city, though, belongs to him.

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Response to msanthrope (Reply #15)

Mon Jan 2, 2012, 03:51 AM

16. He's a smart man

He also got The Open Society to locate in Baltimore.

But from what I read, he had some opponents about the Inner Harbor - of course, no politician ever lives one day without opponents.

It was a definitely an accomplishment that he was able to keep Baltimore's bond rating up during the Reagan era while other east coast cities were downgraded, tho.

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Response to RainDog (Original post)

Mon Jan 2, 2012, 04:26 AM

17. Reading the headline, I thought he had died!


Glad to be wrong.

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Response to DeathToTheOil (Reply #17)

Mon Jan 2, 2012, 05:00 AM

18. me too!

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Response to RainDog (Original post)

Wed Jan 22, 2014, 12:19 PM

19. Wow... I had never heard of him before


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Response to Ohio Joe (Reply #19)

Wed Jan 22, 2014, 03:51 PM

20. Welcome!

Have you ever seen The Wire? If not - it's so worth it. Each season is a different issue for the city of Baltimore - the police and the projects, dying big industry and labor, kids/school, political life, journalism.

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