Packing auditoriums and lobbies of the Baltimore Convention Center, recovering drug addicts embraced and shared a message this weekend that there is hope -- even for the most hard-core among them.
More than 16,000 people attended the 24th annual world convention of Narcotics Anonymous -- its largest and one of the biggest conventions ever held in Baltimore.
City officials were not available to confirm whether it was the largest convention, but convention center volunteers said it ranked among the biggest.
Thousands of participants attended yesterday's "international meeting" -- the final conventionwide activity in the four-day gathering -- and they chanted and cheered in what amounted to a huge support meeting, spreading the word that they can help themselves and others through love and determination.
"This is a gathering to celebrate recovery," said Michael Polin, manager of World Convention Corp., which organized the annual meeting. "We're growing very quickly. In 1980, we were in six countries. Now, we have membership in over 60 countries. We're talking about a half-million members. . . . Drug addiction is a worldwide problem."
Throughout the multi-level convention center on the closing day, people were hugging, shaking hands and snapping photos.
Mr. Polin, who works in the Van Nuys, Calif., headquarters of Narcotics Anonymous, said planners have been working on the Baltimore conference for three years.
This year's world conference, which attracted participants from 25 countries, topped the organization's former attendance record in Chicago by almost 6,000.
On Friday and Saturday nights, conference attendees occupied more than 3,000 hotel rooms in the city, Mr. Polin said. Outside, vendors hawked T-shirts, hats, soft drinks and other goods. Inside, conference organizers said they had sold $370,000 worth of convention T-shirts, hats, jackets and mugs, all bearing the words: "The Message Is Hope."
Participants at yesterday's meeting wanted addicts to know there is hope and that recovery is possible.
When Paul, who traveled from Canada, said it was his sixth anniversary of sobriety, the crowd broke into a rendition of "Happy Birthday," then began chanting, "Keep coming back." For many recovering addicts, participants explained, the anniversary of their first day of recovery is far more important than a birthday.
The 41-year-old organization has a strict policy that members use only their first names, to guard their anonymity and to prevent anyone from gaining fame or notoriety from going public. There are no fees or rules; the only requirement is that a person wants to stop using drugs or alcohol.
Narcotics Anonymous, a 12-step fellowship organization based on the principals of Alcoholics Anonymous, offers hundreds of meetings in the Baltimore region, which are free to members. There is a local hot-line number ( 947-8028) and toll-free numbers for the bay area ( 540-8829) and Eastern Shore ( 925-9937).
Organizers said the event attracted addicts with decades of sobriety as well as those with just hours.
Mr. Polin said 3,000 "newcomers packets" were distributed -- materials for addicts with less than 30 days' sobriety.
One woman, who was a couple of days into recovery, was found in a restroom in the throes of detoxification and had to be transported to a local hospital, organizers said. They knew of no other medical emergencies.
Throughout the convention center, participants talked about the power of Narcotics Anonymous, which many said offered help when all else -- hospitals, treatment centers, psychiatrists and church groups -- failed.
"I'm Stephan, and I'm an addict," said a young man from Germany. "Before I went to NA, I was broke. I had no friends. I had nowhere to live. Nobody trusted me. Even my dog went away from me.
"I didn't know how to stay clean. I was desperate. I heard people say people in NA stayed clean, so I went. I saw something in their eyes I hadn't seen anywhere else. They gave me hope."
"I don't have to lie, I don't have to cheat, I don't have to steal. I don't have to belittle myself anymore," said Darrell, a recovering addict from New York. "I will get better -- one day at a time."