On Sunday night, February 24, Justin Smith, a 17 year-old LaSalle High School Student, was murdered trying to buy pot in Cincinnati.  Smith, accompanied by a couple friends, was attempting to buy off a street dealer in South Fairmont, a neighborhood long in decline.  Per police reports, Smith or one of his friends attempted to pay the dealer with fake currency and as they tried to flee the scene, the dealer fired a shot, killing Smith.  Police have arrested a Dierres Lee, 19, and charged him with the murder.

This incident and others like it have unfortunately become a part of our urban landscape.  But even at that, the lack of media interest in the case is telling.  The Cincinnati Enquirer could manage only a 75 word blurb under “Local Briefs.”  TV news accounts were a bit more expansive, telling us Crisis Counselors would be on duty at the school for those students who needed to talk.  Only after Assistant Police Chief Paul Humphries, who knew the victim, spoke about the incident, did the coverage pick up.

In the past, murders like this would have brought some background stories on the suspect, interviews with family and friends of the victim and some coverage about crime in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. And at least a partial reason for the lack of media interest is that we’ve become inured to drug related violence.  There are those who think a 17 year old trying to buy pot  knows what he is getting into and deserves little sympathy.  And I’m sure there are a few who think the attempted ripoff of Mr. Lee justified his murderous reaction.  But bottom line, Justin Smith was a victim of a failed drug war that too often pushes naive drug buyers into the hands of violent individuals working in  the street drug market.

There are few things more dangerous than buying drugs from street dealers.  Drug dealers represent a potentially lucrative target for violent street predators and their ability to compete in the business rests on their willingness to retaliate in violent measure against those who challenge them.  For a dealer who has been ripped off, the choices are stark.  He can hardly call on the police to protect himself and his business.  To be ripped off and not retaliate marks them as soft and ensures they will be repeatedly victimized.

Teach your children well.  There are few things more disturbing to the police officer in me than to see these suburban kids driving about the city looking to score some drugs.  Too many of them view it as a great adventure and too many pay a terrible price.  If anything can come out of the death of Justin Smith, let’s hope some brutally honest parent-child conversation is happening now across the tri-state.

Let’s also hope this incident can become a catalyst for some honest drug policy discussion.  In my humble opinion, the time for debate is past.  The War on Drugs apologists need to step aside and make way for a new approach.  Legalizing marijuana takes pot sales out of the hands of people like Dierres Lee and puts it into the regulated market place where the purchase price does not include the risk of murder.