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October 13, 2022 58 mins

Kurt Schmoke’s life and mine intersected at a pivotal moment in the spring of 1988, as the war on drugs was approaching its most feverish pitch. I was a 31 year old assistant professor at Princeton University who had just published a prominent article which explained why the drug war was as doomed and counterproductive as alcohol Prohibition. Kurt was a 38 year old former district attorney who had just been elected mayor of Baltimore, when he said much the same to a national conference of mayors and police chiefs. It was an extraordinary act of political courage. Confronted by an avalanche and mockery, he did not back down. His life, and mine, were transformed. We talked about those times, why he did what he did, and what transpired.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Hi, I'm Ethan Edelman, and this is Psychoactive, a production
of I Heart Radio and Protozoa Pictures. Psychoactive is the
show where we talk about all things drugs. But any
views expressed here do not represent those of I Heart Media,
Protozoa Pictures, or their executives and employees. Indeed, heed, as

(00:23):
an inveterate contrarian, I can tell you they may not
even represent my own. And nothing contained in this show
should be used as medical advice or encouragement to use
any type of drugs. Hello, Psychoactive listeners. Uh you know,

(00:45):
I know I say sometimes that, well, this episode is
gonna be a real treat, But I mean this one
really is going to be a treat. And I'll tell
you why. Uh Back, this goes back a ways to
w and I was a young assistant professor at Princeton
and had written a few articles about the drug war

(01:08):
being totally out of control and doing more harm than good.
And this mayor, young mayor in Baltimore, pops out saying
somewhat the same sorts of things. That's our guest today.
His name is Kurt Schmoke. He's currently the president of
the University of Baltimore. Before that, he was a dean

(01:30):
of Howard Law School. He held a range of other positions. Um.
But he was also the chief prosecutor of Baltimore in
the nineteen eighties and then got elected mayor in late
nine seven, served three terms until nine uh in Baltimore.
Uh and uh, you know, really a garnered national attention

(01:53):
with a very brave thing that he did back then. So, Kurt,
thanks so much for joining me and psychoacted great to
be with you. And Uh, I guess my biggest claim
to fame is that I read your articles while I
was mayor. We helped a great deal. Well, it's very
generous to you. But I I you know, as I

(02:14):
reflected on occurred, I also think that but for your
having stepped out, I I think my life might have
been totally different. Now for the first thing, I have
to say, you know, I was thinking time does fly,
and we're talking about it was a period when the
drug war was in a period of national hysteria in America,

(02:34):
number one issue in public opinion polls. Uh. You know,
just you know, both Democrats and Republicans jumping on the
drug war band. But wagon, it wasn't just Ronald Reagan
and Nancy Reagan, all the Republicans. It was Jesse Jackson,
the most prominent African American political leader in America at
that time, Charlie Wrangle, the influential Harlem congressman who was

(02:55):
chairing the House Select Committee on Narcotics. But really just
I mean, there was almost a national con census behind
something I've oftentimes talked about as as basically, McCarthy is
um on steroids. You know. I at that time, I
write this article in Foreign Policy magazine saying the drug
Wars failed. It's a bust. The title was the US
drug policy a bad export. A few weeks later, there's

(03:17):
the Economist magazine, the famous British magazine comes out with
editorial saying more or less the same thing and maybe
even going further in terms of embracing full legalization, which
I've been hedging on, and that gets a little attention.
And then I'm sitting in my office is you know,
and then my first year teaching at Princeton and I
get a phone call from some reporter I think in

(03:37):
Baltimore saying, so, do you have any comments about what
our new mayor just said? And I said, what did
he say so, well, you better see this. He stood
up at the National Conference of Mayors. They were having
a joint meeting with the police chiefs of America, and
he basically slammed the hell out of the drug war
and said, we need to put all options on the table. So, Kurt, okay,

(04:01):
I'm bringing you back. It's it's April nineteen eighty eight.
You've been elected mayor five months before after serving as
chief prosecutor of Baltimore for many years. What was it
that prompted you to do that? Absolutely outrageous, um but
also extraordinarily courageous thing. Well, thanks very much, Ethan for

(04:23):
taking us a little bit down memory lane. But it
does set a context. Yeah, I've been a prosecutor actually
um eight years a prosecutor, three as an assistant U
S Attorney, and then five as the chief prosecutor, the
state's attorney in Baltimore. And as you recall, I had
a good friend of mine who was working undercover as

(04:46):
a police officer who was killed and uh during it
was Marcellous Ward, Marty Ward, and and it was unfortunately
a botched drug operation. They were trying to capture a
guy who was transporting drugs from New York, and the

(05:08):
the person who was the recipient in Baltimore unfortunately figured
out that Marty was a police officer shot and killed him.
And Marty was wearing a body wire at the time.
So as State's attorney, I had to listen to his
his death and to make a decision about how I

(05:29):
was going to prosecute. And at that time, Maryland had
a death penalty law and had to decide whether to
seek the death penalty or not. But in any event,
Marty's death started for me, started to trigger a lot
of thinking about the about the drug war, and I
had an opportunity. I was invited to be a speaker

(05:52):
at this joint meeting of the U S Conference of
Mayors and National Chiefs of Police. A speech was written
for me. Took a, you know, a look at it
and I decided, nope, I'm not going to give this
you know, traditional speech. And I took a look at
a memoir that the chaplain at Yale University wrote a

(06:14):
memoir and it was entitled Once to every Man is
based on Him of the Church, and the hymn goes,
you know, once to every Man comes a moment to
decide and I thought about it for a while and
I set up this is my moment. Uh am I
going to do the traditional I'm going to tell him
what I really I think and and hopefully start a debate.

(06:37):
And that's what I was trying to do. In the speech,
I said we had to debate the question of whether
we should decriminalize drugs. And uh, by the time I
got back from Washington where the speech was, you know,
it's only forty five minutes away from Baltimore. But by
the time I got back, the AP was running headline, uh,

(07:00):
Baltimore mayor supports legalizing drugs. Um So that started me
and involved in a discussion that continued for the twelve
years that I was in office and beyond. Yes, yeah,
that's for sure. Now, I think it's important for our
listeners to realize that back in you know, what happened

(07:22):
was if you just called for a debate about the
harms that the draw Gore was doing, you were more
or less instantly labeled legalizer and conflated with a libertarian
legalized and so that attack that Kurt You're out there
arguing for legalizing Uh, it was very hard when that's

(07:42):
onslaught came in the media. Uh, you know what, what
what was your first reaction. I knew that there would
be strong reaction locally. I didn't realize that I would
be involved in a firestorm throughout the country. I knew
the how the local reaction was going to play out.

(08:03):
And the reason was there was a consensus throughout the
country that the drug problem was primarily a crime problem
and that the way to address it was through the
criminal justice system. Uh. And locally, for me in Baltimore,
I could tell having talked to my constituents, white black, Um,

(08:29):
we did not have a large Latino population at the time,
primarily whites and blacks in Baltimore, And to a person,
they believed that, uh, we should solve this problem more police,
more incarceration, that that was the best way to do it.
So just even raising the question about an alternative, UH

(08:51):
seemed totally heretical. And UM, I had a number of
people that wanted me to, you know, go to the
train station and be under the train uh time. But
you know, through a great deal of conversation back and forth,
you know, slowly but surely, people's minds began to change.
But you know, one thing I did learn in the

(09:14):
process that one of the reasons that a number of
national figures, congress people, for example, who supported a debate,
one of the reasons they didn't say anything that they
run every two years, and so it's so easy to
demonize a person. And I had the luxury of having

(09:35):
a four year term, so I could talk to people
about this over you know, the next three and a
half years before I faced reelection, and that made all
the difference in the world, you know. And I'll say it,
I mean, obviously these memories are going to be even
more vivid for me than for you because it places
it's a prominent role in my life. But you know,
I'm thirty one, you know, assistant professor, finishing my first

(09:57):
year of Princeton teaching your thirty eight, barely into your
first year as mayor, and I remember our first conversation. Um,
you and I had both been invited to go on Nightline,
Ted Copple's Nightline show, which was the most famous and
widely watched you know TV political show, you know, really
in the late twentieth century in America, and we were

(10:18):
going to be debating Charlie Wrangle, the you know, Harlem
congressman who was saying that what we were saying was outlandish.
And soon you and I had a preliminary talk, and
the first time we actually saw one another was actually
on camera in May for that Nightline episode, you and
I debating, debating wrangle. But what I'm curious about is
did you ever contemplate walking it back? I mean, you

(10:39):
must have lots of advisers saying, Kurt, roll this thing back.
I mean, you know you gotta go. Yeah, this is
going to destroy your political career, this is gonna be whatever.
Did you ever consider that? No. Once I was out there,
I knew that, uh, you know, I had made an
important decision. And I certainly knew that I had made
a career decision, and that I had cut off some

(11:01):
options for myself in terms of future political career. But
I believe very strongly in this. It was tearing our
community apart. And uh, I knew that the status quo
wasn't acceptable, so there had to be a different way.
What I didn't know at the time, uh, And and

(11:21):
I did criticize myself with this, UM I should have
initially proposed an alternative approach. It was much later that
I started you know, learning about what was happening, you know,
with the Dutch and and the Portuguese and things like that,
and what was going on in Zurich that they're they're

(11:42):
in fact were alternatives, except many of those barely existed,
you know, I mean even talking about a kinder, gentler
drug war, which was a little bit about what we
were doing. I mean you may not know this, but um,
this past summer, I had a very precocious kid named
Joey Kaufman who was my intern for the podcast, and

(12:04):
he got an interest in the drug issue in part
because he was in some contest that Kennedy Library in
Boston does this Profiles Encourage contest um, where you know,
high school kids pick out somebody and write an essay
about them. And actually you were very generously agreed, yet
you let Joey interview you. Last year he wrote a
very good essay. It turned out nobody had ever submitted

(12:27):
your name for Profiles of Courage before, but this past year,
in fact, two of the fifteen semifinalists were both essays
about you. Kurch smoke at the Kennedy Center. So I mean,
it's nice to know that, you know, there's a new
generation coming up that can kind of look back and
appreciate the courage that you showed in doing what you

(12:48):
did back then. No, I certainly didn't know that. And uh,
as I said, you know, what I was trying to
do was to stimulate the oak A debate. I just
knew what we were doing then was not working. And
not only wasn't it working, it was causing more harm

(13:09):
than good. But I really didn't have a solution. But
at the time that I was being criticized for my statements,
I kept thinking about a quote from mary O Cuomo. Uh,
then Governor Cuomo once said that politician must distinguish between

(13:34):
ideas that sound good and ideas that are good and sound.
And I've just criticized myself for not um having a
good and sound alternative to the war and drugs at
the time that I made the critique, right, Well, I mean, look,
let's let's get into this a bit, because when I'm
thinking back to that period, you know, you and I

(13:56):
go on Nightline. It's and you were, in some respect
is becoming nationally known. You know, people are going, you know,
what's that mayor schmoke been smoking or smoking or something
like that. Um, But you know. Then. I remember I
was on Larry Kane debating a senator to motto, the
Republican senator from New York. You are on a hundreds
of TV shows. You and I both land up on
Donna Hue, The New York Times, Washington Post, Front Page, Time, Magazine, Newsweek.

(14:19):
I mean, the major media outlets, all in the midst
of all their drug war coverage, they took a little
break to say, and here's a small host of characters
who are stepping out. And now we weren't alone. I mean,
the fact of the matter is you and I were
the two most prominent people stepping out, but there was
a few police chiefs, former police chief Joe McNamara who

(14:40):
had been in Kansas City and San Jose Anthony Booza,
So we weren't totally alone on this stuff. Yet on
the other side, I mean, it was just monumental opposition,
you know, Ted Copple. Besides, after having us on a
few months later to do a big old our Town Halls,

(15:01):
I imagine national television, major network, a three hour, four
hour special on this issue, and you and I are
on there. I think you were on my video and
I was on there William Buckley, the Commissioner Customs, Jesse Jackson.
Then they brought on a whole host of other characters,
including Charlie Wrangle and Alan Dershowitz and you name it.
And I remember I'm sitting between Jesse Jackson and Charlie

(15:24):
Wrangle and I hear one of them say to the
other boy, that's a one term may or if I've
ever seen one. And I kind of say, I said,
don't don't bet on it, don't bet on it. And
then there was, of course the congressional hearing that happened
in that fall where Charlie Wrangle you would call for
congressional hearings. Charlie Wrangle felt obliged to have a hearing.
As you might expect, he loaded the entire first two

(15:45):
hours when the cameras were there with all the antis,
gave you a brief moment while interrupting you. But in
all of that, did you have any direct relationships? I mean,
did did Wrangle and You ever speak directly apart from
on the media. Did Jesse Accident you ever speak directly?
We did other prominent American politicians at the time ever
speak directly with you about the issue. Um not in

(16:08):
that the first three and a half years after you know,
after my statement, In fact, my my congressman, um who
you know, a protocol when you have hearings in Washington,
your congressman or senator usually introduces you and my congressman
then KWASI and fumy Uh did let them know my name,

(16:33):
but he's spent most of the time making sure they
understood that he didn't share my views on the the issue.
The only time I talked to any of the national
politicians was in a debate type setting. UM. No kind
of quiet um a discussion, you know, or somebody saying

(16:57):
to me, you know, what what do you mean by this? Uh?
Because as you recall, the country and the national political
scene was moving towards um A crime bill that was
going to be very, very harsh. So there was still
basically a feeling that we can prosecute our way out

(17:18):
of this problem, and it just needed you know, more
police resources, more incarceration, more for the d e A. UM.
So there was not uh an opportunity from a much
debate and and I must say that Ethan, looking back
on it, I remember going on uh some of those
national TV shows, and I just felt that we really

(17:43):
weren't having a discussion that in some way, uh, we're
just being kind of ambushed on the programs. And so
I had one invitation several months into my discussion from
a young woman in Chicago named Oprah Winfrey was having
a show about this, and much to Masha Grant, I

(18:05):
turned down that infotation. Oh my god. Well, the one
that I remember, well, the one, the one you didn't
turn down was Phil Donna You. And for our listener
to understand, Phil Donna You was the most prominent talk
show host back for decades, and you and I are there.
I remember Lester grin Spoon from Harror Medical School was
on there, and I remember, you know, both of us

(18:28):
were struggling to find the right language to talk about this, right.
You know, you didn't want to talk about legalization to
something said. I didn't like the language of legalization either,
although people kept tagging me because that people instantly associated
with a free for all and a free market, and
you know, you'd be talking about decriminalization sometimes, you you know,
try to get into the medicalization language. And I remember

(18:50):
that Donna You show somebody I don't know whether Donna You,
who was on our side, but maybe he was provoking
you or some of the audience, and all of a
sudden you started going in with the analogy used to
alcohol prohibition, and you started sounding kind of radical. Uh,
And I mean I could see it was always you know,
on the one hand, you understood that most of this
was a problem created by prohibition. But I remember worrying

(19:11):
about you at that Dot A U show. I said, boy,
Kurt's getting more heat I've ever seen him. He's getting
more radical I've ever heard on. But when I think
about your struggling with to finding the right words and
the right language to put your views out there, do
you recall your evolution or your thoughts about that at
the time. Well, I do, because I was getting a
bit frustrated that people weren't engaging in debate. They were

(19:35):
just throwing conclusions at me, and I was trying to
come up with a way that would get folks to
really see that there were multiple sides to this problem,
that it wasn't just strictly a crime problem. And you know,
and I recall um at one of those shows saying

(19:57):
that four thousand people died last year from smoking cigarettes
and there were no known deaths recorded for smoking marijuana,
just for inhaling marijuana. And of course somebody got up
from the audience and said that his daughter had died

(20:17):
by an automobile accident of somebody who was smoking marijuana
and drove into her, and that was completely different point.
But uh it got you know, applause and uh people,
you know, failing to really hear what I was I
was trying to say. And over time even I came

(20:41):
up with this idea of going to what I thought
would be skeptical audiences and asking them three questions. And
that that's how I came to that of uh, you know,
going in and not saying I want to talk to
you about reform right now. I simply go to the

(21:01):
audience and I'd say, do you think that we've won
the war on drugs? Do you think that we're winning
Do you think that doing more the same over the
next decade will win the war and drugs? And I said,
if you can't answer yes to any of those questions,
would you consider alternatives? We'll be talking more after we

(21:25):
hear this ad h. I think you also, maybe we're
the originator of the line. If we're going to have

(21:45):
a war on drugs if should be headed not by
the Attorney general but by the surgeon general. That was
a good one. But you but you did reference the
prohibition analogy from time to time, or I did. That
was one way of getting people to to understand it. It.
I find though, that the prohibition analogy has become more

(22:07):
credible in the twenty one century with the opioid problem,
when more and more Americans are seeing neighbors like themselves
with a drug problem. So I see more of an
acceptance of the that analogy, uh now than I did

(22:28):
what way back in Now, you know, apart from UM
the national stage, where it's obvious these guys were not
talking with you directly, UM locally, they had to be
talking with you directly, and you were dealing with members
of your cabinet, You were dealing with leaders of the
black churches, I think, including when you're related to UM,

(22:51):
you're dealing with law enforcement. So you know, what was
it like dealing with folks in Baltimore in those early years. Well,
fortunately for me, I had to really outstanding health commissioners
uh Dr Maxie Collier UM and then Dr Peter Billinson,

(23:11):
and both of them were very supportive of UH, the
idea of treating this as a public health problem rather
than a criminal justice problem. They were strong advocates for
public health intervention and they helped me to come up
with some ideas that I could present UH to UH

(23:35):
our local legislators about a different approach to the problem.
And as you know, Ethan, I began to explain to
UH local legislators that, UM, when we talked about the
drug problem, it wasn't just a matter of addiction. UH. Yes,
there's the criminal aspect, but also AIDS was a huge issue.

(24:00):
And I indicated that, you know, with the help of
our public health commissioners, that one of the things that
we could do to address the AIDS issue was to
have a needle exchange sterile syringe exchange program in Baltimore.
And that is how I started to engage UH state

(24:20):
and local elected officials because our health commissioners, UM and
I really wanted to have this needle exchange program to
reduce the spread of AIDS in Baltimore, and we felt
that we could do it without increasing drug use. But
that was a discussion that we had to have with

(24:41):
the state legislators because there was a state law that
prevented having a needle exchange program. Um and it, you
know again, took us three years to convince people to
give us the pilot authorization for a pilot program. But
without the help of our health commissioners, I'm not sure

(25:02):
I could have ever persuaded them. People were skeptical. Most
folks thought that there was a crime problem. But it
took quite a while to persuade even my own staff
that this was a direction that we should go in.
And once again without Maxi Colli, Dr Collier and Dr
Balance and it would have been an uphill battle for me.

(25:23):
What about the church leaders were you were you getting
invited into explain yourself at churches in Baltimore? I was.
I was getting invited to the churches. The ministers were
generally opposed. I had some small support for the idea
of reform because there were two things that were going on. One,

(25:44):
they were starting to see this increase in incarceration of
black men and the disruption that that was causing to
family life, so that was a concern. And then a
number of people indicated that they were burying Uh they were,
you know, having more funerals for younger and younger people

(26:05):
because of AIDS. And so those two things started to
get some you know, different thinking on this, but generally
I was invited to just to to give my point
of view. So that was important that they would at
least let me come in to have conversations even when

(26:27):
they disagreed. And and ultimately though UH, as you know Ethan,
it was because of a change in opinion of the
leading clergy organization UH in town after about three years
of debate, that they came down with me to Annapolis

(26:47):
to testify in favor of giving us the authority to
have a needle exchange program. It had a huge impact
on the legislators and was one of the reasons that
we were able to get that pilot program implemented. Yeah, well,
you know, so now we were not alone back then
in another sense, apart from the small handful barely one

(27:09):
handful of of other elected leaders and others who were
stepping out, there was the creation of an organization called
the Drug Policy Foundation. Remember their first meeting I went
to in London in nineteen eighty seven, founded by Arnold
tree Back who was an academic at American University, and
he was had been born in late twenty late twenties

(27:30):
and you older than us. And then the other his
partner in this was Kevin Z's and a lawyer who
had been the briefly the head of Normal in earlier years,
and they organized the Drug Policy Foundation. Remember that first
conference in night in d c Uh. There actually were
a few members of Congress, and they helped bring together academics,
they bring some emerging activists. People came in from Europe

(27:52):
who were beginning to introduce the harmonduction ideas, and in Liverpool,
in the Netherlands, etcetera like that. And I, Karl, I'll
tell you, Um, I actually was scrolling around last night
online and I found your speech to that first conference
is un c span you can dig it out. In fact,
I had introduced you, um, and I remember you're saying,

(28:13):
my guy, this is like the first friendly audience, the
first chance I get to to preach to the choir
on all of this. So I imagine that must have
felt nice to at least find some receptive company who
regarded you, you know, like I did, as a leader
and a hero in all of this. Well, I don't
recall exactly what I said, but I do remember that

(28:35):
it was totally refreshing to actually have people talking about
the pros and cons the complexity of the problem. That
was really refreshing, rather than they have people take, you know,
just one view and dismissed, you know, an opposing view. Uh.
And like you mentioned about the European situation on needle exchange,

(29:00):
we had the chief of police from Rotterdam come to
testify at our legislature and to explain to people how
his program operated in the in fact that it did
not increase the number of people using drugs, nor did
it increase crime in Rotterdam. And so, you know, getting

(29:23):
the global perspective was extremely important, uh in making some
progress and drug policy reform in this area. Hmm. Well,
so let me have another issue here, which is that
I remember later in a eight I get a phone
call from a ex former District attorney of Philadelphia, a

(29:43):
guy named ed Rendell uh. And ed Rendell subsequently lands
up running from mayor Philadelphia, becoming two time mayor Philadelphia,
governor or two time governor of Pennsylvania, the head of
Democratic Government Association. So he becomes very very prominent in
he had just finished being d a. He was, you know,
not particularly prominent. He calls me up on that Princeton,
and he says, you know, we're gonna have a form here,

(30:04):
and I think Southeast Philly with a black part of Philly,
and we have Kirchmo coming. But he asked me to
call you because he felt it would be good to
have an ally there. And so you and I show
up there and it must have been fifty people from
that part of Philadelphia, I think I and one or
two of the other speakers. It was an entirely black

(30:26):
audience apart from us, and people were standing up there
and saying, may or smoked, you bring that stuff to Philadelphia.
We're gonna run you out of here on a rail.
And what I when I look back, what I realized
is that the language you and I I don't think
you did. I don't think I did. Back in the
late eighties, early nineties, we did not talk about this

(30:48):
as a racial justice issue, right. I mean, if you
look at what Black lives matter, when you know, one
of the great things about Black Lives Matter is that
when they emerged some years ago, and for me, it's
this incredibly refreshing thing because finally you have a kind
of black you know, new generation civil rights group that
is embracing drug policy reform, and many of the arguments
that they were saying were remarkably similar to what we

(31:09):
had been saying back before they were born, when they
were just you know, infants. But we did not use
the racial justice argument. And I know that in my case,
you know, if I did, you know, it would be like,
what do you you know, you white Princeton intellectual. No,
what do you know about drugs doing our community? The
fact that you were out there, as a black man,
former chief procedutors saying this was powerful. But I don't

(31:31):
recall you framing this as a racial justice issue for
at least the first number of years. I wanted to
reflect on that for a bit. Yeah, that that's absolutely correct,
And um, I guess I won't say it was a
failure to raise that issue because I thought that what
I was talking about substantive change in drug policy was

(31:54):
you know, where are needed to focus. But I was
struck at a conference much later. It was after I
was out of office. I was actually dean at the
Howard Law School, so that had to be two thousand
four or five. I was on a program with Michelle Alexander,

(32:15):
the author and the new gym crew and UM. One
of the statements that she made on the panel was
that there were no no African American politicians UH speaking
about the need to reform drug policy. And I kind
of looked at the moderator of the panel and UH,

(32:38):
I didn't say anything. I said, well, maybe she met
somebody who was currently in office. But later on it
was clear to me that she was unaware of comments
that I had made as mayor because I didn't frame
the issue in the way she framed it most succinctly

(32:59):
and clearly UH in her outstanding book. But I certainly
didn't frame the discussion in that same way. But at
the time, you know, I thought the most important thing
was to getting people's mind those three questions, to get
them the question whether the drug war made sense, and

(33:21):
whether they were open to consider some alternatives. UH. That
that was what I thought was most important at the time.
And I think one reason we didn't use the racial
justice frame is because so many black leaders and others
at that time would basically reject it. They were arguing
that we need the drug war, we need more cops,
we need more of this, and needle exchange is not

(33:41):
the right thing in all of this, and so I
mean you were dealing with that in Baltimore right in
your face all the time. Well, that's correct. And when
you look at the number of people, particularly Congressman who
voted for the crime bill, although uh so many of
them twenty years later said they regretted it, but at

(34:02):
the time they were reflecting the very strong views of
their constituents, and they were looking at the drug problem
is mainly a supply issue. That is, drugs were being
brought into the community. They were being supplied from others,
whether it was other countries or people from other states,

(34:25):
and that law enforcement, if they really wanted to, if
they really had the resources, could stop that supply. That
was that was the primary viewpoint as supposed to looking
at the appetite for uh the drugs that demand aside,
and we have proportionately a very few resources going into

(34:48):
dealing with demand and trying to get people treatment. So
at the time it was difficult to raise this as
a racial justice matter when the census white and black
than others. Was it was a crime problem. Let's put
more resources in the criminal justice slowly but surely a change. Now.

(35:09):
I want to bring up with you one little touchy
issue that happened. Right, So now you're eleven years in office.
You got one year ago. Peter bill Andsen is still
your health commissioner. Been doing a great job helping moving
forward the harm reduction stuff. I organized a meeting in
my office is in U and it's a meeting about
trying to get heroin prescription trials going in the US,

(35:31):
because by that time, first to switch and then then
then the Dutch and the Germans and others were starting
programs like methanon maintenance, but allowing people for whom methanon
didn't work, to come into a clinic like a high
end methodon clinic and get pharmaceutical heroin. And you had
been out there publicly putting putting that out as an
example of one of the things that could be done.
Peter comes to our meeting, he's all gung ho. He

(35:55):
goes back and he gives an interview and he says,
we got to start something like that in Baltimore. And
I remember what happened he said we, And people said, well,
that must mean the Smoke administration. And when when Peter
was actually talking about we, the city of Baltimore, in
the universities here, and I remember you had to rope
him in and pull them back. So at that point
it was tricky, huh. It was still sensitive. And what

(36:19):
I said to Peter was that it's taken us a
long time from to get people to agree with us
that there needs to be drug policy reform. But Baltimore
had a long history after World War Two with heroin,

(36:40):
and it was older people. It was some older criminal
gangs really that had died out over time, but there
was still among older voters recollection about heroin. And I
just said, Peter, you're getting ahead of me, and that
people who were starting to be supportive of the direction

(37:04):
that we're moving in will stop and and neither reverse
course or at least um won't let us continue our
efforts because heroin scares them. And that's what I said. So, yeah,
that I did have my uh finger and the wind
sometimes on political issue. I admit that that I didn't

(37:29):
blame you for it. Then I got it. I mean,
it was really something that JOHNS Hopkins University of Maryland
should have been doing, and even in Europe, and it
started off not with mayors taking the lead, but oftentimes
with research institutions and such doing those trials first before
it ever became a real policy. I was very fortunate
to have great health institutions downtop in School of Public

(37:50):
Health UM really did a wonderful job and studying our
needle exchange program because, as you know, at the time,
the federal government still had a law that prevented institutions
that were receiving federal dollars from running needle exchange programs.
Where they they were the group that did the study.

(38:11):
And after the pilot period, which was a four year period,
we were able to go to the legislature with the
Hopkins School of Public Health data and show them the
dramatic impact of reducing the spread of AIDS and not
increasing the number of drug or intravenous drug users. And

(38:36):
so uh they passed legislation allowing us to continue the
needle exchange program. And I think it's important for people
to know that when we got the pilot program, we
were able to get it with uh just one vote
that made the difference. Uh there um in in the

(38:58):
legislature when we went back after four years, everybody voted
force except for one person. So UM, it was a
dramatic it was based on applied research I remember the
Congressional Black Caucus that you know, one year is calling
a needle exchange genocide or something, and a few years
later is calling for the resignation of the drugs are

(39:20):
if he won't support needle exchange. So you did see
that major transition the nineties. One thing you may not know, Kurt,
is that even back when you were mayor, JOHNS. Hopkins,
together with Columbia University in New York and Wayne State
in Detroit, were three universities in America that actually were
giving heroin to people in their research trials. They had

(39:44):
gotten permission from the D eight and imported from Europe.
They were they were paying people who were illicit drug
heroin users to come live at a clinic for a
few weeks and then be tested for what heroin was
doing to them. So, in some respects, you know, all
of the obstacles about giving heroin to human subjects about
importing it had been resolved. It was just the idea

(40:04):
of doing an experiment where it wasn't just to evaluate
the impact of heroin and the human body, but to
see if a maintenance trial could actually help people stabilize
their lives in the way that it was clearly working
in Europe. That was the really difficult thing to cross.
And it's something that no American university to this day
has done. Even its has become standard operating procedure and
half a dozen European countries and Canada. You know, So hey, listen,

(40:28):
let's go back to the political thing here. You know,
I remember like thinking, okay, well maybe, and people were
saying you've cut off your chances for statewide office here. Um,
but I remember just wishing you had a senator, Senator Sarbanes.
It was a respected senator, but it wasn't lighting the
place on fire, and just wishing that he would retire

(40:50):
so that you could run for Senate because I mean,
I was among a huge number of people who thought
you would have made a fantastic member the U. S. Senate.
I mean, how much did you enter that possibility back?
The Senate was the only office that beyond the mayor,
that I contemplated pursuing. I spent some time in when

(41:13):
there was an open governor's seat in Maryland. My wife
and I went around throughout the state just taking a
look at the issues that the governor has to deal with.
But I decided, uh, No, that's not what I wanted
to pursue. That if I have an opportunity, I would
like to become involved in setting national policies, and of

(41:34):
course drug policy being one of them. So um my
um last election was so I was leaving office in
December nine and I thought that there was a possibility
that Senator to Cebring's was not going to run again.
Then that the next Senate race was two thousand, but

(41:55):
then he decided to do another term. And so that's
when I decided to pursue, uh, some other interest that
I had in the academy, and fortunately I was able,
after a brief stint in the law firm, to get
the job as dean of the Howard University School of Law.

(42:18):
Let's take a break here and go to an ad
You fast forward in the years two thousand and there
was some meeting of mayors at the White House with

(42:40):
Bill Clinton, and one of the other mayors who was
there was a real drug warrior, Richard Daily, the son
of the other famous Daily, you know, the Daily family
that kind of ran Chicago for a big chunk of
the twentieth century. And I think you raised a little
contrary viewpoint there. I was wondering what got into you
because you weren't talking quite as much about the drug
issue at that point. I mean, your frame had really

(43:01):
been I want to make Baltimore the city that reads.
You wanted to make literacy. You're real focused, you wanted
to really put that out front. But nonetheless, what got
into you there again, what was happening, uh, was a
lack of debate really about what was going on. And
so we had a moment. There was a little luncheon

(43:24):
and Mayor Daily made a comment to President Clinton and
then I've raised my hand and I said, the miss President,
do you realize that this conference is being sponsored by
a tobacco company? And you should have seen the look

(43:44):
on Mayor daily space when I said that. But President
just looked at me, and I said, I've raised that
because of the fact that you have done an outstanding
job over the last few years in reducing the level
the number of people who smoke in the United States,
and you've done that using public health strategies. I said, sir,

(44:09):
if I'm standing here in in my left hand holding
a green leafy substance that your CDC says killed four
thousand people um last year and in my right hand
is a green, leafy substance that there are no known
deaths from smoking that, which one do you think ought
to be criminalized? And um, he just kept looking at me,

(44:34):
and so, I you know, which is okay? Smoke, keep
talking and then sit down. Um, so I said, of course,
the left hand has tobacco, which has killed four hundred
thou people year, and right hand is marijuana, which no
known deaths from smoking. So I said, sir, I just
urge you to consider using the public health strategies that

(44:58):
have been so effective that with the tobacco, to use
that rather than criminal justice m the marijuana. He finally
got up to speak and started the launching into a
discussion about his brother, Roger. I believe his name was
who did go to jail? Bill Clinton's Bill Clinton's brother

(45:19):
Roger that went to jail because of a drug charge.
And he believed that that drug sentence actually saved his life.
But you know, so it was it was a very
political response. Of course, nobody expected me to speak at that.
I wasn't on the program to speak, but I was
just prompted because of the fact that, you know, it

(45:41):
was just ironic that there we were at a conference
dealing with substance abuse, and it was sponsored by a
tobacco company. Yeah, yeah, no, no, no kidding Clinton. I
think he really wanted to do the right thing in
those first six months in office, and then I think
he looked at members of Congress Democrat members of Congress,
and they basically weren't going for it. I think they said, hey,

(46:04):
you have anybody told us, don't let the Democrats get
out flanked by the Republicans on being tough on drugs
and tough on crime. Well, let me ask you. Maybe
this is a bit of a source subject, but your successor,
I believe his mayor, who then became governor was Martin
O'Malley and who tried to run for president. And I
will say I was no fan of him. I remember
there was time when he was governor and he had
promised deep in the legislature he would sign some very

(46:26):
moderate sentence and reform bill and the last minute he
basically broke his promise, I think, persuaded by a bunch
of prosecutors he had hired as his chief aids. But
what was your relationship like with good old Martin O'Malley. Well,
we didn't really talk a great deal about policy matters.
I tried to give him a very good transition. I

(46:49):
did a report form that he could kind of follow
the um policy developments easily in the city. But to
a great extent. He ran for office criticizing my approach
to public safety and specifically focused on our police commissioner,

(47:09):
guy named Tom Fraser. So there really wasn't much to
talk about and h and that that first term. It
was later when he started making, you know, indicating that
he definitely was going to run for president, that we
had good conversations about policy. But during his first term

(47:31):
as mayor, uh, we hardly spoke. So, Kurt, if you
were writing a memoir, what illicit drug use would you
be admitting to other than has at the time, um,
when I was a student at Oxford, that that would
be about it. So only outside the country, a little
like William Buckley on his infamous sailboat, you know, off

(47:52):
the coast. You know, so he wasn't an American jurisdiction.
Uh huh. You know. Well, and listen around those early
two thousands, this TV show comes out the Wire, which
at the time it never won an Emmy, but it's
since gone down in history as one of America's greatest
television shows. David Simon, you know, the creator, and somebody
who was a guest on this podcast and referred to
you as sort of a you know, a prophet before

(48:14):
your times or maybe that. I guess the prophet is
always before their times, but some some language like that.
But what did you think of The Wire? Now? I
I really thought it was an excellent show. I know
my successor hated it, thought that it just put Baltimore
in such a bad light. But I thought what David
and Ed Burns, who is his um you a co creator,

(48:38):
former policeman, that they were trying to say to the country, Um,
this is a really complex problem. Yes it's in this city,
but we're really not focused on Baltimore. We're focused on
the drug issue. So I took it, uh that way.
I know it was a very popular show in Europe

(49:00):
because I I was asked once to write an article
for The Guardian comparing the real Baltimore to The Wire,
which I did. But I know for many many people
in our city they started to not have a lot
of pride in that show because when they left town

(49:21):
and go and would go visit people all they would
talk about related to Baltimore with the wire, So it
did have somewhat of a negative impact as it related
to our tourism industry. But I thought it was very important,
uh show, and I appeared on it a couple of

(49:42):
times because, as you know, David at a little impish
sense of humor, so he had me, uh as the
health commissioner to the mayor. I played the health commissioner
to the mayor, for which I had to join the
screen actors guilts. I'm a union member. Yeah, yeah, Well,
I think also you had a line in there, right.
It was Charlie Wrangle back in the day had called

(50:05):
you the most dangerous man in America. And I think
one of your lines was the guy playing the mayor
while you're playing health commissioner. Uh, you know, has this
little there's this little police experiment Hamsterdam, a kind of
needle park in Baltimore, and your line to him was
to the mayor was better watch al Clarence will be
calling you the most dangerous man in America. I gotta

(50:27):
kick out of that little play on Charlie Wrangle's assault
on you there. Yeah. I think you also made the
point that it was, you know, excellent fantastic TV show,
but that people, you know, should no more assume that
was a real life depiction of all of Baltimore than
they would watch The Sopranos and imagine that was a
real life depiction of all of New Jersey. Yeah, and
the earlier show that David did, uh, homicide Life in

(50:49):
the Streets, had a scene in which the actor comedian
Robin Williams played a tourist to Baltimore along with his
wife and they we're going to a baseball game and uh,
the wife gets shot in the TV show and I
was mayor at the time. Uh, and our phones just

(51:11):
get rang off the hook. The people thought that they
had been a murder at Oriole Park and so yeah, sometimes, uh,
those TV shows get a little close to a reality there.
So yeah, no exactly. Well, look just to jump for
more more recent years, I mean, for our listeners to know,
you know, Kurt stayed involved. He joined the board of

(51:33):
the Drug Policy Foundation when then that merged with my
organization the nineties linusmiths Inner create Drug Policy Alliance. Kurt
stayed on the board of directors for many years remained
a major commitment when he stepped off, he joined the
honorary board. The organization now has an award that is
jointly named for him and another leader for accomplishment in

(51:56):
the field of law. So I mean, Kurt will be
forever associate it with this now. The last time we
saw one another, it's very vivid for me. It was
January seventeen, five years ago. It was the day before
I was about to tell my board that I was
stepping down as executive director and the chairman the board
I were lass year. We had agreed. You know, we've

(52:18):
been playing this out for five months. We kept it
very secret. But there you were. I hadn't seen you
in a year or two. We're having a two hour
coffee one morning, and I remember confiding in you. You
were the only one of the only people I knew
who I had told beforehand, having been sworn into secrecy.
We haven't seen each other since that time. But a
couple of years ago, I get a phone call from

(52:39):
my buddy Rick Doblin, the head of MAPS and Multiple
Discitary Associated Psychologic Studies, which is leading the way on
the legalization of m d m A for PTSD, Ethan,
can you introduce me to Kirt smoke. Well, what's that about. Well,
there's this fellow named Bob Parsons. So I organized the
conference call and you and Rick Doblin and I had
a very nice call and just say a little something

(53:01):
about Bob Parsons and what if anything is coming to that. Well,
Bob Parsons, people will know his company, but he's a
co founder of the Internet domain UH company, Go Daddy.
Bob is from Baltimore. He's a graduate of the University
of of Baltimore and Uh he was a marine Vietnam

(53:28):
veteran who has overcome an awful lot because of that
experience in Vietnam and has been a proponent of psychedelics
and the treatment of PTSD and UH, Bob continued to
be a very strong supporter of the University of Baltimore.
Asked me to meet and to see if any of

(53:49):
our professors would be interested in research in that area,
and uh they are. And then so we have some
research going on at the University of Baltimore, but we're
looking into it and working um with Rick and at
the request of about Parsons, who is a very strong

(54:09):
supporter of this. I think that's great, cart I mean
Rick may also mentioned that some of your faculty and
students have actually gone through the MAPS training so that
they can become psycholic assisted psychotherapists, when in fact the
f d A approves this treatment hopefully. Uh, I guess
if not the end of this year, then sometimes next year.
So there's no fully escaping your attachment and connection to

(54:30):
this issue. Um. But Karl, I I just had to say,
I've loved this kind of romped down through memory lane.
But I think that what you did was really truly
did make history, and it really is. I mean, I
know I embarrassed you by saying this, but you know
I stood up at this conference in Baltimore in front
of hundreds of people just recently and I said, you know,
I think about my heroes. You know, we think, you know,
I have the same famous heroes many people though, you know,

(54:52):
you know, you know Mark Marl Luther King and Nelson
Mandela and uh vak Lov Hovel, you know, the famous
check playwright in First President and Um but I put
Kurt Smoke in that group simply because what he did
in stepping out and sticking to his guns back at
a time of mass national estheria. You know, it's like
you look at the one person who voted against the

(55:12):
Vietnam War back in the day, the one person who
voted against the you know, invasion of Iraq or whatever.
I mean, what you did had a moral equivalence to that,
you know. Bless you, and thank you for the courageous
leadership that you showed on that and also for the
partnership that we had for so many years. Well, thank you, Ethan.
It's great talking to you. And uh, as I've said

(55:34):
to people many times, you know, without your writing and research,
which I felt this though, I was just an ambassador
for some of your ideas and uh very fortunate um
to connect with you and uh uh connect with the
organizations that are bringing about reform. And I oftentimes wonder

(55:56):
that my life might have been quite different but for
your stepping out the way you did and adding an
element of real world political legitimacy to it. I don't
know that this thing would have taken off, you know,
either my own personal life or more broadly so now.
It really was historically of great significance. So thank you
ever so much Kurt for joining me and my listeners
on Psychoactive. All the best to you, if you're enjoying Psychoactive,

(56:21):
please tell your friends about it, or you can write
us a review at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get
your podcasts. We love to hear from our listeners. If
you'd like to share your own stories, comments and ideas,
then leave us a message at one eight three three
seven seven nine sixty that's eight three three psycho zero,

(56:42):
or you can email us at Psychoactive at protozoa dot
com or find me on Twitter at Ethan Natalman. You
can also find contact information in our show notes. Psychoactive
is a production of I Heart Radio and Protozoa Pictures.
It's hosted by me Ethan Nadelman is produced by noaham
Osband and Josh Stain. The executive producers are Dylan Golden,

(57:05):
Ari Handel, Elizabeth Geesus and Darren Aronofsky from Protozolla Pictures,
Alex Williams and Matt Frederick from my Heart Radio and
me Ethan Edelman. Our music is by Ari Blucien and
a special thanks to a Brio s f Bianca Grimshaw
and Robert Deep. Next week I'll be talking with the

(57:33):
award winning journalist, author and documentary filmmaker Martin to go
about his book Bop Apocalypse, Jazz raised the beats and
drugs are the misconceptions that you know, people have about
heroin and jazz is that these guys would shoot dope,
get on the stand and like be high out of
their minds and play. No, that's not what was going on.

(57:57):
What was going on with that, there's drug which had
created this metabolic need for it was being satisfied, and
so that's what would allow them the kind of stability
to be anchored, you know, back again in their music.
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