20 years ago, signs pointed to drugs' threat

November 23, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

A message arrives the other day to call my brother Sidney, who is not precisely my brother. This is our little joke. A long time ago, when they rushed Sidney into intensive care at Union Memorial Hospital, nobody was admitted to see him except immediate family.

''It's OK,'' I explained at the front desk. ''I'm his brother.''

Nobody questioned this until the nurse got me to Sidney's bedside, where she noticed that he and I not only had separate last names but separate skin color as well. The nurse rolled her eyes and decided to let it go. The brother tag has stuck for more than 20 years.

Sidney was the first heroin addict I ever wrote about. I met him in the barber shop that isn't there anymore on Greenmount Avenue just above North, back in the spring of 1968, and we hit it off.

He was in the process of beating heroin, and I was in the process of finding out what drug traffic was doing to a city in denial.

City Hall thought drugs were confined to the bleakest black ghettos, a fact some politicians found acceptable.

The cops underestimated drug traffic so badly that, for years, there were only a dozen officers specifically assigned to the narcotics squad. There were a couple of rehab programs in town, but they were so overcrowded they had to turn away people desperate to kick the habit.

Sidney and I had this naive notion back then about writing his story and telling the whole town how bad the problem really was. The piece would set off an outcry for more treatment and more cops. It ran on a Sunday, at the top of Page 1, of a newspaper that isn't there anymore, called The News American.

If anybody noticed the piece, they didn't seem to care. Exaggeration, said a state's attorney. It's just the blacks, said a city councilman, so what's the problem? We can handle it, said a police commissioner named Pomerleau, who also isn't there anymore.

And now, I notice by the calendar, it's more than two decades later. Instead of a few thousand street junkies, there are an estimated 35,000. Instead of a dozen cops fighting drugs, it's every cop's focus. The war on drugs has been lost, the mayor of Baltimore admits, and last week he had experts here to look for a way out.

''There isn't any way out,'' Sidney was saying recently. ''Not this way. All the police in the world can't win this kind of fight.''

Sidney was lucky. He had a supportive family, and he had strength. Also, in that brief heartbeat in the late '60s when Washington threw guilt money into cities, there were jobs around that no longer exist.

Look where we are now. Last week, there were city officials talking loudly of tough measures to take back the city's streets. More candle-light vigils, some said. Beautiful. It sounded like a wake-up call arriving 20 years too late.

At the mayor's conference -- the International Network of Cities on Drug Policy, it was called -- there was grim talk of reforming the fight against drugs. Schmoke has championed decriminalization. Those in Washington who hear him smile indulgently, as though saying: He's young, he'll learn better.

Four years ago, George Bush called narcotics ''the gravest domestic threat facing our nation'' and then asked for $7.9 billion for an ''assault on every front'' of the drug war. For the record, the money was .065 percent of the federal budget. For our ''gravest domestic threat?'' Big deal. He could have doubled it, and it still wouldn't be enough.

''All these candlelight vigils,'' my friend Sidney said yesterday. ''What is a candlelight vigil? It's 10 minutes on the other side of the war zone, that's all.''

Then there's something else: Last month, the Abell Foundation issued a report -- ''Baltimore's Drug Problem: It's Costing Too Much Not to Spend More On It'' -- calling for more emphasis on treatment and noting that 62,000 people in the city (about one in every 12 residents) need drug or alcohol treatment.

The country still hasn't learned the great lesson of whiskey Prohibition: It didn't work. Nor has the drug fight. My friend Sidney beat narcotics while there was still time. It's too big to stop now. Instead of stopping the traffic, we've created a generation of criminals, from whom we cower behind locked doors.

And candlelight vigils won't stop it, nor City Hall outcries or grand conferences, if nobody in Washington is listening.

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