Baltimore's No. 1 problem: drugs

Linda Cotton

July 15, 1991|By Linda Cotton

TIFFANY SMITH died last week at age 6, another young victim of the war raging in Baltimore's streets. Tiffany was doing what kids have done for decades in the summer in the city -- playing on the sidewalk in front of the house, enjoying the cool of the evening air.

She was caught in a cross-fire, as two men exchanged shots in a Wild West battle. There is speculation that the fight had something to do with drugs. That's a pretty good bet.

Drug turf wars dominate the streets of this city, at least the streets where poverty runs rampant. There are so many killings of innocent bystanders -- mothers, fathers and children, that we have developed a callousness about it, something akin to watching the devastation of Iraq while wolfing down the meat loaf.

The killing of Tiffany Smith followed several reports about young boys, 10 or 11 years old, who -- looking to make a fast buck -- have been busted this summer for dealing or delivering drugs or acting as lookouts for dealers.

These are kids for whom the steamy streets of the city offer no diversion from the summer heat, and the run-down row houses and shoddy schools provide no ladders for climbing out.

The images of handcuffed kids, and the old school photos of the children who have been killed, have found their way into the newspapers too often this summer. How can we tolerate seeing children caught up in the drug trade, and shot up in the drug war?

Baltimore, we seem to say over and over, is no worse than any other city -- as if that were justification for allowing our kids to be sacrificed. But is it really no worse?

A report released earlier this month by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that emergency room admissions for drug-related problems in Baltimore dramatically increased between 1989 and 1990, while there was an even more dramatic decline in E.R. drug admissions nationwide. Baltimore, in other words, is the exception.

The city disputes the study and cites its own data -- based on admissions to drug treatment programs -- which show that cocaine use appears to be leveling off. But the city numbers reflect only a select segment of the drug-using population -- those people who either seek help or who get caught and are forced to attend treatment programs as part of a rehabilitation plan. Cocaine, anyway, is only one part of the problem -- there is still heroin, PCP, acid, you name it. Emergency rooms cast a wider net, catching people who aren't getting help. Hospital stats, in other words, tell it like it really is.

Drugs have become, without doubt, the No. 1 problem facing the city -- not only ravaging the minds and lives of countless residents but also turning many parts of the city into little Beiruts -- where gunfire rips through the days and nights and a stray bullet can ricochet off a building at any time and kill anyone unlucky enough to be standing in the wrong place.

Still, neither Mayor Schmoke nor the City Council has done anything. There is one person in the Mayor's Coordinating Council on Criminal Justice who is responsible for drug policy. One. There are, of course, drug prevention and treatment programs, but they are buried somewhere in the Health Department. And there is the Police Department for enforcement. But there is no coordinated effort. No Office of Drug Abuse. No drug czar. And, in fact, very little rhetoric about fighting the drug war.

Money is only part of the problem; there is also no leadership. Unlike William Donald Schaefer, who actually rode through drug-ridden neighborhoods giving out a drug hot line phone number, Schmoke, by contrast, has been invisible. Part of the problem may be of the mayor's own doing. Schmoke made national news early in his administration by floating the idea of decriminalizing drugs. The notion never provided the political capital Schmoke was seeking, and it has since been almost entirely discredited. But Schmoke is stuck with it, and it puts him in an untenable position. It would be hypocritical for the mayor now to get tough on drugs and propose to set up the kind of comprehensive program that is needed, because such a program -- from education to enforcement efforts -- would have to be rooted in the belief that drug use and possession are, and should remain, criminal acts. Schmoke, ironically, may now be paralyzed by his personal zeal for decriminalization.

The fault, however, does not lie entirely with the Schmoke administration. The state has its own drug commission, which was created with a lot of public relations fanfare and soaks up a lot of taxpayer dollars, but has done virtually nothing. Why hasn't jTC the commission offered a salvage plan or provided administrative assistance or money? What kind of perverse politicking undergirds a state drug commission that ignores the plight of the city?

Despite the happy political rhetoric of both state and local officials, Baltimore city is sinking deeper into the moral muck as drug use spreads. How many more kids will have to be killed in our streets, how many more dying addicts rushed to hospital emergency rooms, how many more children arrested before the Schmoke administration and the state will do something about it?

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