Baltimore is a beautiful city, home to the glittering Inner Harbor, mouth-watering crab, and the best ballpark on earth. But if there’s one thing Baltimoreans know, it’s the ravages that drugs can have on families and communities. A staggering 10 percent of Baltimore residents have used an illicit drug in the past year, and nearly a third of all arrests in the city are for drug crimes.
The violence associated with the drug trade is so endemic to the city that HBO’s The Wire is begrudgingly accepted as an accurate portrayal of life for many residents. Meanwhile, the city’s health department has long been at the forefront in treating drug use as public health issues, offering needle exchange, naloxone, and comprehensive health services to Baltimoreans who use drugs. But the city wasn’t always so progressive; it took the bold ideas of Baltimore’s first African-American mayor to transform the way the city – and the nation – look at drug policy.
Kurt Schmoke could have gone anywhere he wanted in life: he was a graduate of Harvard Law, a Rhodes Scholar, and a former advisor to President Jimmy Carter. Schmoke has joked that he is “a man who had a bright future.” But in the early 1980s, he returned to his troubled hometown to seek public office, eventually being elected as the city’s first African-American mayor in 1987.
To call Mayor Schmoke a man ahead of his time is more than an understatement – in the 1980s, he was advancing ideas that remain controversial to this day. At the 1988 U.S. Conference of Mayors, Schmoke shocked the audience by coming out in favor of treating drug use as a health rather than a criminal justice issue, and calling for Congressional hearings to begin a national debate about drug policy. This speech made Mayor Schmoke the first public official in the country to argue in favor of drug decriminalization. His controversial comments gained Mayor Schmoke national attention – not all of it positive. He was famously derided by Rep. Charles Rangel as “the most dangerous man in America” for arguing against drug prohibition.
Mayor Schmoke was inspired to promote the “medicalization” of drug use because he understood that people who struggle with drug addiction are facing an illness, not a moral failing, and should be treated in a medical context. He was also concerned about the spread of HIV/AIDS, which, at the time he was mayor, was a national crisis for public health workers. While it seems common-sense to us now that safe syringes are critical to combatting the spread of infection, at the time his statements were less than palatable. His arguments in favor of heroin maintenance therapy have yet to gain the traction of syringe exchange, but are characteristic of Mayor Schmoke’s dedication to rational, data-driven policy choices.
While Mayor Schmoke is now the Interim Provost and General Counsel of Howard University Law School, he still lives in the Ashburton neighborhood of Baltimore, and he is still best known for his revolutionary stance on drug policy. He continues to promote reform, quietly working to increase Baltimore’s substance abuse treatment capacity and serving on the honorary board of the Drug Policy Alliance.
Maggie Taylor is a policy associate with the Drug Policy Alliance.
*Editor’s note: This post is a part of the Black History Month series from the Drug Policy Alliance, New York Policy Office.