This summer marks the 30th anniversary of an important but little-known moment in America's long misadventure in drug policy. In April 1988, Kurt Schmoke suggested in an address to the U.S. Conference of Mayors that drug law enforcement was proving expensive and ineffective, that criminalization exacerbated public health problems such as HIV/AIDS, and that limited and judicious decriminalization should be considered
Schmoke, a Yale College and Harvard Law graduate, a former federal and state prosecutor, and Baltimore's first elected black mayor, was in a unique position of authority. Delivered at an annual meeting which otherwise rarely garnered any headlines, Schmoke's comments prompted major national controversy. The bipartisan Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 dramatically expanded federal criminal justice purview over the drug problem, and its 1988 sequel was but six months away. Very few elected officials expressed anything less than support for President Reagan's war on drugs.
Indeed, Schmoke's speech prompted a series of congressional hearings on drug decriminalization, held five months later and convened by Charlie Rangel, the prominent African American politician from Harlem and chair of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control. The hearings, unambiguously titled "Drug Legalization: Catastrophe for Black Americans," revealed the extent to which even liberal-leaning black elected leadership supported the logic of no-tolerance police action and incarceration in drug policy. Rangel himself announced his opposition to "anything approaching the legalization of narcotics."
Rangel was no Reaganite, however. He framed decriminalization as official neglect and a retreat from the gains of the Civil Rights movement. During the Reagan administration, black Americans had suffered the retraction of crucial services and protections in educational and vocational opportunity, health-care services, and crime reduction. Speaking to other black mayors, Rangel said, "You have all of these problems, and in the last eight years, this administration has clearly told you that those are your problems, not national problems."
Many of Rangel's hand-picked witnesses for the hearings supported his argument. These included Wilson Goode, the first black mayor of Philadelphia, and Sharpe James, the second black mayor of Newark, N.J. James was elected only a year before Schmoke, to whom he derisively referred to as a "new breed of black elected officials" and with whom he respectfully but adamantly disagreed. The war on drugs should be prosecuted, he argued, to its fullest extent.
Schmoke was not alone in his membership in a "new breed" of black leadership inclined to buck the orthodoxy of zero-tolerance criminalization of addiction. Washington, D.C., like Schmoke's Baltimore, had had a vigorous trade in heroin in the 1960s and 1970s, and in cocaine in the 1980s. Its mayor, veteran civil rights organizer Marion Barry, forcefully asserted that drug users should be treated as "medical problems" and that they and their families had been the victims of the drug war. Barry called for the diversion of street-level resources to efforts to frustrate cocaine producers, distributors, and, quite controversially, the real estate, luxury goods, and financial business which laundered drug money – Barry himself served a six months in federal prison for possession of crack cocaine between his third and fourth mayoral term. Similarly, Hartford, Conn.'s Carrie Saxon Perry, a veteran community activist and, in 1987, the first black woman elected mayor of a large U.S. city, stated that the extreme drug-war-related social and health dislocations she witnessed in the fourth-poorest city in the country required her to support decriminalization.
Rangel and his colleagues derided and lampooned all of them. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, further escalating the war on drugs, passed just weeks before the 1988 election. Reagan's war on drugs continued for many years later, negatively impacting millions of Americans, predominantly Americans of color.
The Trump administration's (specifically, Attorney General Jeff Sessions') avowal to resuscitate the worst excesses of 1980s drug war is clearly wrongheaded. That it is opposed by the majority of Americans with whom public health approaches are more popular is not surprising.
Early 2017 feels like years ago, but you might remember that the two most pressing questions went, first, to the astonishment that Trump had garnered enough votes to win, and, second and seemingly unrelatedly, that so many white people had fallen into substance-use disorder. The answer to both questions, of course, was white pain and alienation. This ignores that communities of color also are experiencing escalating rates of opioid overdose, and that drug law enforcement historically has fallen most heavily on those communities.
A true drug reform agenda needs to frame drug policy not simply in terms of public health but also within the same appeals to economic and social justice – the movements for a living wage, for gender equality, for black lives, for full voter participation and expansion, and for health care — which currently animate the strongest opposition to Trumpism.
If the lessons of mass incarceration, hyperpolicing, and HIV/AIDS (among others) have taught us anything, it is that we cannot go backward – except perhaps to learn a lesson or two from Schmoke.
Samuel Kelton Roberts is associate professor of History and Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University. He is the host of the public health and justice podcast PDIS: People Doing Interesting Stuff and currently is writing a book tentatively titled "To Enter a Society Which Doesn't Want Them": Race, Recovery, and America's Misadventures in Drug Policy. @SamuelKRoberts