''Could you get me a fix?''
''Yeah, I could make a connection for you. It's no trouble.''
The words echo from a distance of 20 years. The second voice belongs to a dope dealer outside the Cherry Hill Shopping Center. The first voice, asking for illegal drugs, is Dr. Neil Solomon's.
Twenty years after the fact, he's come back to the problem which never went away.
''Sure,'' he said yesterday, two days after he was named to head the Governor's Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission. ''I remember Cherry Hill very well.''
He went there because somebody -- OK, it was me -- told him it was stupefyingly easy to buy heroin there. Couldn't be true, everybody said. There was a police community relations center right in the shopping center. Couldn't be true. This narcotics trouble was being blown wildly out of proportion.
Twenty years ago, we were very naive.
''My God,'' Solomon said yesterday, ''how much worse drugs have gotten since then.''
Twenty years ago, when there might have been time to get a grip on drug traffic, the pool hall in the Cherry Hill Shopping Center was the nerve center of drug activity. In a neighborhood ** whose very veins were being shredded, it was an open secret.
''You want to buy something,'' a junkie with needle scars along both arms explained one afternoon, ''you go to the pool hall.''
''Nobody knows me there,'' I protested.
''Won't matter,'' said a second junkie. We were standing in a shooting gallery in a little wooded area near Terra Firma Road, through which elementary school kids marched on their way home. There were used syringes all over the ground.
I went from the woods to the pool hall, where I was approached repeatedly: Whatever drugs I wanted, they were available.
Solomon couldn't believe it when he heard about it. He was the state's secretary of health back then and no shrinking violet. The two of us got into a car and drove to Cherry Hill, and we never had to get out of our seats.
Three guys emerged from the pool hall, and then three more. Solomon asked if he could get a fix. No problem, he was told.
''What about police?'' Solomon asked.
''Nothing they can do,'' he was told. ''It's too big now. It's too widespread. They hit one place, it just moves someplace else.''
And now, 20 years later, here was Solomon ready to move into his new state position, and no one has to explain that these are not the best of times.
For openers, he has been moved in partly to move Mickey Steinberg out. The lieutenant governor is the target of a gubernatorial snit, and this is Schaefer's way of punishing him. Politics comes to the drug war.
Secondly, Solomon arrives amid heavy bloodletting. The weaponry attached to drug traffic has escalated in 20 years, and the money has multiplied, and now there are things such as crack cocaine, the addictive strength of which is beyond anything imagined in 1971.
For nearly a month now, Solomon has been talking to people around the state, digging for ideas. He's talked to county executives, judges, prosecutors, prison officials. His general impression?
''Nobody,'' he says, ''has the answer. But, if we put our minds together, maybe we can come up with some strategies.''
One, launched a few years ago by Mayor Kurt Schmoke, suggested decriminalization of narcotics and subsequent attack of the problem primarily as a health issue.
Solomon called Schmoke three weeks ago. The call was never returned. He says he followed up with a call to see if Schmoke was aware of the first call. He says no one in the mayor's office could tell him.
''It's an idea worth exploring,'' Solomon said yesterday, ''this question of getting the profit motive out of drugs without giving the wrong signal that you're condoning it. I do want to talk to the mayor about it.''
In the last half of the 1980s, drug arrests increased 70 percent across the state. Drug officials now estimate there are more than 50,000 addicts in Maryland. In Baltimore, about 70 percent of all those arrested test positive for drugs.
''Twenty years ago,'' Solomon said, ''we needed to get tough, and we didn't. We needed to go after the dealers and put them in prison, and we needed to tell the addicts, 'You either get onto a treatment program, or you pay the consequence.' ''
The problem then was: There weren't enough programs for the addicts. The problem now is: There aren't enough prisons for the dealers, and not enough money for all the grand notions of cutting into the traffic.
''If we don't pay up front,'' Solomon said, ''then we pay in violence. It's what we're seeing today. There's hardly a person I talk to anymore who doesn't say how frightened he is.''
Twenty years ago, they opened a narcotics program in Cherry Hill. Outside the pool hall, Solomon asked a drug trafficker, ''Do you think people will go to the program? They've got room for 200.''
''Two hundred?'' the man said. ''You can get 200 addicts from one block in Cherry Hill.''
That was a long time ago. If anyone thinks things have gotten better, they don't need to go down to Cherry Hill for evidence to the contrary.