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The Truce On Drugs

The war on drugs has always depended upon a morbid equilibrium, in which the cost of our efforts to keep narcotics from ­users is balanced against the consequences—in illness and death—of more widely spread use. But thanks in part to enforcement, addiction has receded in America, meaning, ironically, that the benefits of continuing prohibition have diminished. Meanwhile, the wars in Mexico and elsewhere have escalated the costs, killing nearly 60,000 people in six years. Together those developments have shifted the ethical equation. “There’s now no question,” says Mark Kleiman of UCLA, an influential drug-policy scholar, “that the costs of the drug war itself exceed the costs of drug use. It’s not even close.”

In many ways, what is happening right now is a collection of efforts, some liberating and some scary, to reset that moral calibration, to find a new equilibrium. The prohibition on drugs did not begin as neatly as the prohibition on alcohol once did, with a constitutional amendment, and it is unlikely to end neatly, with an act of a legislature or a new international treaty. Nor is the war on drugs likely to end with something that looks exactly like a victory. What is happening instead is more complicated and human: Without really acknowledging it, we are beginning to experiment with a negotiated surrender.

In 2005, a 33-year-old man named Shaidon Blake—a senior member of the Bounty Hunter Bloods, from Watts, California—began to travel back and forth between the West Coast and Baltimore by bus. In the lunatic Talmud of gang codes, the Bounty Hunter Bloods are the verifying rabbis, and Blake came to Baltimore at first to determine which local crews were actually Bloods and which were not. But he saw something else that captured his imagination: He saw Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue. “It’s the largest open-air drug market for heroin in the world,” Blake would tell police later, according to the Baltimore Sun. The stream of addicts arriving to buy was constant; even now, walking through, you see the bearded young white guys panhandling on the edge of an entirely black neighborhood, in a rapid slide from hipster into something more desiccated and lost. Blake set up shop. He told police he could clear $180,000 in a single day, and he operated theatrically—once, he had a subordinate stabbed to death with a samurai sword. There was a violent giddiness to it. “Pennsylvania Avenue,” Blake told the cops, “is a freaking gold mine.”

Drug policing in Baltimore, then, had itself reached a kind of perverse mechanized perfection. The department was following the theories then in vogue, perfected in New York, that emphasized zero tolerance of even minor crimes and strict enforcement of low-level drug possession and dealing. In Central Booking, new arrestees were fitted with a bar code so they could be speedily scanned, processed, and then warehoused. “Like self-checkout at Safeway,” says Frederick Bealefeld, who retired this summer after five years as police commissioner. In the city’s most dystopian year, 2005, Baltimore arrested 108,000 people, out of a total population of 660,000 men, women, and children. The drug war had become an open trawl through the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

If you were to freeze the frame right there, around Blake and Bealefeld in 2005, you would see the inner-city drug war as we have come to understand it—in the terms deftly captured by the HBO show The Wire: a fixed, insatiable demand for drugs, and a police department devoted to incarcerating the city’s own citizens on an industrial scale. The tragedies of the drug war, in this image, are permanent, locked into place by the economic realities of the drug traffic.

But even in Baltimore the drug traffic is changing all the time. Here, for instance, is something real: The long boom in American demand for cocaine, the economic fact that shaped the modern traffic, is declining, rapidly, by many measures. According to the federal government’s preferred measure, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the number of people abusing cocaine has halved since 2006. No other illegal drug has replaced cocaine: Heroin, far less prevalent, has held steady, and methamphetamine use seems to have peaked nearly a decade ago. “This decline,” says Peter Reuter, professor of public affairs at the University of Maryland and a leading thinker on drug policy, “is very much real.”

Cocaine addicts are aging, and they aren’t being replaced. In the early nineties, the average age of an addict, Reuter says, was about 27. Now it is about 40. Plenty of people are still trying the drug—the rates of first-time use haven’t dropped—but for reasons that haven’t fully been discerned, “they aren’t becoming addicts,” Reuter says. The epidemic has now been waning for fifteen years, long enough to think the trends will last and that the florid paranoia, broken families, and death of the crack-cocaine epidemic will not be a permanent feature of American life but a cultural artifact of the ugliness of the eighties. “It is awful, but many cocaine addicts are dying,” says Jonathan Caulkins, a drug scholar at Carnegie Mellon. It is awful. It also makes new ideas possible.