As a writer specializing in drug issues, Larry Dedmon can call on a lifetime of experience: more than 30 years of abuse of heroin, cocaine and alcohol.
He started drinking at 13, taking heroin at 15. Last year he quit drugs and now, at 44, he's putting his knowledge to use at a unique Baltimore publication called Street Voice.
Street Voice has been appearing monthly since December and is distributed free to addicts, recovering addicts, their families and the homeless. It includes information about treatment programs, a column on medical tips, poetry, interviews with medical experts, admonitions about sharing needles and stories by and about drug users.
It's not slick. One sheet of brightly colored paper, printed on both sides, Street Voice is earthy and personal, speaking to readers in a language they understand about issues they deal with daily.
"We're kind of like a non-traditional approach outside the traditional programs," says Curtis Price, who helped found Street Voice in December. "We're not just handing out literature that's been written elsewhere and delivering it to people. Now the message itself is being written from within."
The nine people who do most of the work of putting out Street Voice include several former drug users. Price, an exception, is a 35-year-old licensed practical nurse who has worked in treatment programs and for HERO, the non-profit organization devoted to AIDS prevention and education.
With six issues already published, the group has begun to meet its goals: providing information about community resources and treatment, survival tips, an outlet for opinions and a sense of unity among drug users.
Street Voice started on a shoestring, with contributions from its unpaid staff. Today, it occupies a modest office with hand-me-down furniture in the 2500 block of St. Paul St. and is gaining momentum.
The private Health and Welfare Council, which channels government money to community programs, has allotted $5,000 to help the Street Voice organization do outreach work among intravenous drug users who are at risk of contracting or spreading AIDS. The City Health Department initially approved $2,000 and is likely to authorize a similar amount later in the year, says Thomas Davis, director of the department's substance-abuse bureau.
"We do think it's needed," Davis says of Street Voice, "particularly because they're reaching a population, people on the street, who may not ever come into contact -- or not for some time -- with our normal services."
Staff members want to do more and hope to obtain more money from government and foundations. They want to increase the monthly run of 5,000 copies, expand outreach efforts into schools and churches and do more programs such as the recent legal rights forum they conducted for drug users.
"We certainly hope to expand," Price says. "We could easily double or triple our run and maybe even go to a biweekly. We're just flooded. The ironic thing is we actually have to put offers on hold, people that want to volunteer, because we don't have the infrastructure or financial base yet to take everybody on."
The staff itself has been distributing the publication directly to prospective readers and the places they frequent, such as soup kitchens and homeless shelters. The one-on-one contact is essential to Street Voice's success, staff members suggest.
"It's not only putting out bulletins, it's a means of communication," says Fred Kasim-Williams, 46, a former user.
"We're in a position where we can go into the pits of West Baltimore, where the average guy wouldn't think of going, the hell-holes, the shooting galleries, the back alleys, and talk with people and not have any fear of being molested at any time," he says.
Kasim-Williams wants to save souls before they are lost. For his 25-year-old son, it might be too late.
"He's facing 15 to 20 years, minimum, because of his crack cocaine addiction," Kasim-Williams says. "We're talking about trying to save some of the people who have already lost out to drugs, but look at the kids, the future, we're trying to deal with that, too. That's why we're going into the schools."
Says Don S., a 54-year-old former heroin user and Street Voice writer: "All of us know grandfathers and their sons, and their sons, taking dope together."