WASHINGTON – Drug arrests have increased steadily in Maryland for the past two years after a sharp drop in 1996, as police agencies have become “more aggressive” in pursuing drug crimes.
Police made 41,489 drug arrests in 1998, up 7 percent from the 1997 level of 38,824 arrests, according to Maryland State Police statistics. Drug arrests rose 6 percent between 1997 and 1996, when there were 36,628 state drug arrests.
But those numbers are still only approaching the 1995 level of 44,323 arrests. A state police spokesman could not predict whether arrests this year would top that 1995 level, but said the agency is “doing a good job in enforcing the law.”
“We’re continually becoming more aggressive with drug arrests,” said Lt. Joe Barker, spokesman for Maryland State Police. “It’s just our stand on drug enforcement.”
Baltimore City recorded the most drug arrests in the state in 1998 with 18,052 arrests, up 5 percent from 1997. The next-highest number was in Prince George’s County, where 4,031 drug arrests were made in 1998. Anne Arundel had the highest increase, jumping almost 40 percent to 3,609 arrests in 1998.
Maryland mirrors a national trend of tougher enforcement of drug laws, but that may not be the best way to fight the problem, according to one drug policy group.
Kevin B. Zeese, president of Common Sense for Drug Policy in Falls Church, Va., noted that while drug arrests have increased nationwide, drug use remained stable in the 1990s. He said governments should be more concerned with treating drug addicts than with arresting them.
“By doing that we’d be doing more to undercut the drug market,” Zeese said. “These arrests don’t have a tradition of being successful.”
But an aide to Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said the “argument between treatment and punishment is a phony debate.”
“We need to do more of both … we get the best results in terms of reduced crime when we combine treatment with punishment,” said Adam Gelb, Townsend’s policy director.
He said the state offers just such a combination with its Break the Cycle initiative, which requires drug testing of offenders on probation and parole.
Despite the increase in drug arrests, drug- and alcohol-related deaths remained relatively steady, inching up from 477 in 1997 to 484 people in 1998, according to the Maryland State Medical Examiner’s Office. But it also said drug- and alcohol-related deaths reached 271 in the first half of 1999, on pace to surpass the 1998 deaths by 12 percent.
Gelb said residents should not take the increase in the number of drug arrests as a sign that there is a serious drug problem in the state.
“Arrests are only one of several dozen indicators of whether the drug problem is getting better or worse,” Gelb said. “Increased arrests do indicate that law enforcement is being more aggressive about clearing street corners so that people can walk down the street or sit on their porches without fear.”
But police cannot do everything, said Douglas Tipperman, executive director of the Montgomery County Community Partnership.
“My belief is no one societal institution can address this problem effectively,” Tipperman said. “It’s a major problem and … it takes an entire community working together to really have an impact.”