A veteran of the craving helps others battle drugs Methadone program could get boost from renewed push for treatment

August 22, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Staff Writer

The enemy within Richard Lane grows older, but it still crouches there full of malign intent.

Now and then it stirs, as it did four years ago when he had most of his stomach removed in a cancer operation, and found himself hooked up to a morphine drip.

"It aroused a drug hunger in me. I have occasions when I am tempted. Those times when I am around addicts who are talking about the 'good heroin' they've had. Then you recall the pleasure. Not the pain. That's why I avoid known drug users."

But he doesn't, really. He's with them all the time, a collector of casualties in the war against drugs.

He runs the Man Alive methadone-maintenance program in Baltimore -- a medical approach to a problem more typically addressed criminally. It is the oldest program of its kind here, one of the country's earliest, and Mr. Lane has been with it from its beginning 26 years ago.

Now that Baltimore's mayor is renewing his push for dealing in medical ways with drug addiction and the Clinton administration is promising to shift its anti-drug strategy toward education and treatment, Man Alive's approach to this problem might well be coming into favor.

"Law enforcement is the war. I'm not a part of that war," Mr.Lane said. "Treatment works. I can prove that. But there's not enough treatment for those who want it."

He has been an addict for more than half of his 58 years. For 26 of those years he has been maintained on methadone. He takes it every day; it blocks the craving for heroin, holds down the demon inside.

Man Alive today has about 300 addicts registered, and generally keeps them functioning more or less normally, out of jail, out of debt to society.

Since keeping one prisoner costs $10,000 to $20,000 a year, one could make a hypothetical case that the efforts of Mr. Lane and his 32 staff people at 21st and Charles streets save the state of Maryland $3 million to $6 million a year. More, if you factor in the things addicts would be stealing, the damage they would do, the drain they would put on state health facilities.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke believes that the war on drugs, as it is being run now, has produced little more than "random violence, unsafe streets, government corruption . . . money laundering, prison crowding, a criminal justice system near collapse."

It is destined to fail, the mayor insists, and is costing entirely more than the effort is worth, something like $10 billion a year of taxpayers' money. He has said this frequently.

Mr. Schmoke gained this insight about the war's fruitlessness during his years of proximity to drug criminals, when he was Baltimore's chief prosecutor.

Drug abuse, he wrote in a 1990 article in the American Oxonian, the magazine for American Rhodes scholars, "is a disease. And like any other disease, it responds to medical treatment, not criminal sanctions."

Mr. Lane understands this, endorses it. And he, too, gained his insight among criminals. He did 12 years in various Maryland prisons, for dealing and consuming drugs.

With the help of a chaplain

The story of Richard Lane is one of personal regeneration, managed with the help of a true and steady friend, a Catholic priest converted from Judaism who also spent a lot of time among criminals as chaplain at the Maryland State Penitentiary. His name was Meyer Tobey.

"He never preached to me, never tried to get me to go to church. But he was always going to bat for me. Always encouraging me to straighten my life out," Mr. Lane said.

It wasn't Mr. Lane's soul that Father Tobey was trying to save so much as his life.

Mr. Lane came to realize that himself, near the end of a five-year stretch at the state penitentiary.

"Gradually, at about 30, it began to sink in. I was looking for some way to do something about my addiction. I was afraid I would go back to drugs when I got out. I always used them whenever I got the chance in prison."

Not long before he was released, he had started reading about two doctors at Rockefeller University in New York, Vincent Dole and Marie Nyswander, and their work of stabilizing heroin addicts permanently on methadone.

He also heard about a physician named Emmett P. Davis, who was prescribing methadone to addicts over in East Baltimore, a drug that Mr. Lane hoped "could keep me out of jail."

Hope glimmered from a clinic on Belair Road.

So, on the evening of April 11, 1967, ("the day I stepped out of prison") Mr. Lane went there and, in a way, found his destiny -- his life, his life's work and, eventually, his life's partner, Charlotte, an addict he met at Man Alive. They were married in 1971.

Richard Lane is a tough-looking guy with the clean features of an actor who plays tough guys in the movies. He has a bent nose, a ready crooked smile, straight graying hair. He has a slight, one-eyed squint that makes him look as if he's taking aim while he's talking to you.

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