- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 23, 2004

BALTIMORE (AP) — For years, many of the nation’s leading black lawmakers, lawyers and social scientists complained that the nation’s war on drugs was both ineffective and unfair.

They blamed policies arising from that war for the disproportionate number of blacks in prison.

But for years, little changed.

Last week, a dozen black professional groups announced the creation of the National African-American Drug Policy Coalition, hoping to spark reform with a two-pronged approach: In a handful of cities, including Baltimore, they plan to advise judges to offer treatment rather than prison sentences for drug crimes and to push education and prevention in communities.

Nationally, they aim to begin a debate that will propel lawmakers to change mandatory minimum-sentencing laws that the coalition complains unfairly hurt blacks and other minorities.

Among the group’s leaders is Kurt L. Schmoke, a former three-term Baltimore mayor who, in 1988, called drug addiction a public health problem and advocated decriminalizing drugs. His stance sparked a national debate on drug policy.

Mr. Schmoke, once a prosecutor and now the dean of Howard University Law School, will be co-chairman of the coalition.

Mr. Schmoke acknowledged that his stance on drug decriminalization did not draw widespread support, but he distanced that position from this latest effort.

“I have tried my best to ensure that people didn’t see this as a Kurt Schmoke operation, because it is not,” he said Wednesday. “I do strongly believe that this war on drugs should be more of a public health war. I am very pleased that this organization has come about. But it’s not something I created, and it’s not about decriminalizing drugs.”

Mr. Schmoke said instead he wants to help fix what he calls “one of the most important issues affecting the quality of life in urban America.”

The notion that the nation’s drug policies are ineffective is not new. But what sets the coalition’s effort apart is its collaborative nature.

“We have had a fragmented approach for some time, but we have never had all these groups working together,” said Arthur L. Burnett, a retired D.C. Superior Court judge who is the full-time executive director of the coalition.

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