Marty Garrity came of age around Hollins Market in the late '50s and early '60s, when the heroin was cheap and good, when the junkies would hang on the corner with languid eyes while eating chocolate and being hip.
"Shooting heroin was just like sex; no, it was better," Garrity said of those initial weeks before the addiction took over his soul. "My whole body was nice and the heroin took all the bad things away."
The addiction Garrity created in the following weeks took him through more than a decade of hell that he never could have envisioned in those first narcotic-induced dreams.
Today, at 50, Garrity is a walking miracle. He came very close to fatal overdoses on numerous occasions. Once, on the 10th floor of a Washington, D.C., hotel, he was so lost behind a veil of heroin he nearly fell out an open window. He was a burglar, fenced his stolen booty on the street, did lots of jail time and lived the life of the consummate manipulator.
Finally, he grew weary of the junkie's life and was admitted to a program that administers daily doses of methadone, a synthetic narcotic invented by Nazi scientists during World War II.
"I've been on methadone now for 21 years," he said. "I worked for 13 years cutting hair but developed bursitis. Now I do part-time work, HIV intervention at Man Alive [drug treatment program] and I am on the grievance committee there."
To people like Garrity, the methadone he swallows daily is what insulin is to a diabetic.
"It really got me away from the heroin," he said. "But even though you're trying to get a normal life, once people know you were a heroin addict now on methadone treatment, you seem to carry that stigma through your life."
He said that when he went to various support groups, he encountered a discrimination that he never anticipated.
"There were people, others recovering from alcohol or prescription drug addiction, who said I wasn't in recovery because I am on a drug," Garrity said.
"But methadone is different," he said. "They thought you weren't all the way free. If they were on a total abstinence program, they wanted you to be the same.
"Now that we've started Methadone Anonymous, we can begin to help each other and be sure of no prejudice," Garrity said. "I'm just sorry we didn't think about this long ago."
Gary Sweeney, a counselor at Man Alive, has organized addicts being treated on his program as well as patients from six other methadone treatment centers into a group that is seeking to avoid, in their perspective, being ostracized at more conventional support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
With the help of officials from other methadone programs, Sweeney today was to start one-hour support group sessions under the aegis of Methadone Anonymous.
The meetings will be open to the public and eventually will be conducted seven days a week at various program sites.
The idea, he said, is to reach out to as many methadone patients -- there are more than 3,500 on state program rosters now -- as possible.
"People who come into treatment usually admit themselves because heroin has whipped their butts," said Sweeney.
"Without moralizing, methadone allows a patient to be productive. It blocks the effects of heroin and stops people from using needles, one of the main causes of AIDS. They can work, they can pay taxes, they don't commit crimes to support their illegal habits."
The work of Sweeney and other treatment officials comes at a time when heroin appears to be making a comeback in Baltimore and internationally. Poppy-growing regions in Southeast and Southwest Asia as well as Mexico are sending refined heroin into the United States, China and Europe at an accelerated rate.
Purity of street-level heroin is up in Baltimore, as it is in all other major cities in the Northeast corridor, and a buyer here can purchase a gram of heroin for $70 to $100, according to Sgt. Anthony Cannavale, of the city Police Department's Drug Enforcement Section.
While heroin use appears to be on the increase, hundreds of heroin addicts seeking methadone treatment -- both walk-ins and those making telephone inquiries -- are turned away each month, according to George McCann, director of Addict Referral and Counseling Center, sort of an addict triage on 25th Street.
"Once we find room for them on a methadone program, they want to get into support groups," said McCann. "But about one-third of them come back to me and say they are ridiculed because of being on methadone. They simply felt not welcomed and don't want to go back."
There are 3,510 former heroin addicts being treated with methadone in Maryland. Treatment and law enforcement officials say there are an estimated 40,000 heroin addicts in the state -- 25,000 to 30,000 in Baltimore.