Snow may close streets, but drug traffic brisk

January 14, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Friday morning, with a grimy sky spitting more snow and sleet across the local landscape, an East Baltimore guy brushes flecks of wet stuff out of his eyes and says, "You wouldn't believe what's going on down here. We got crack dealers in four-wheel drive vehicles. They're making house calls. They're meeting guys on the corner. I'm telling you, nothing stops these people."

In his office eight floors above the city, the police commissioner of Baltimore, Thomas Frazier, would not be surprised to hear this. He sat behind his desk the other day, and he said we can no longer go on like this. He meant the drug traffic. He mentioned a visit to a drug treatment facility in East Baltimore, where a junkie with a serious habit related a few facts of modern economics to him.

"If I see a pair of sunglasses under the windshield of your car," the guy told Frazier, "I'm gonna break in and get those glasses. Maybe they cost you $75. I know it's gonna put your car in the shop for two or three days, and it's gonna cost you a few hundred bucks to fix that windshield. But I'll sell those $75 glasses for $5, see? That don't sound like much, but the $5 gets me halfway to a $10 ready-rock. And that's all that matters to me."

From this, Frazier commenced to do a little arithmetic. At the current time, snow or not, blocked streets or not, the average junkie in this city has a $75-a-day habit. There are, minimum, 50,000 addicts in the city. This means $3,750,000 in cash money is handed over to put illegal substances into the body. Every day. But, in order to get that money, the junkies have to pick up perhaps 10 times that dollar figure in stolen goods. You can do your own multiplication on that one. Do it every day.

"And that," says Frazier, "is the thing that's driving our crime rate. The vast majority is drugs. And the Baltimore City Police Department cannot arrest the city out of this."

The courts are running 3,000 felony cases behind. The guilty are frequently let go, because the courts are filled. The drug traffickers know this, and the cops know that they know it, and their frustration and cynicism run hand in hand. Consider some more arithmetic.

"The average drug arrest," says Frazier, "takes three hours and 41 minutes to process. That's arrest, book and write a report. That's half a shift. So the officer's not even on the street for half a day. And the arrest is of no consequence, since the courts aren't doing anything anyway, so what's the point?"

The words hang in the air for a moment: What's the point? The nation is now three decades into various versions of wars on drugs, and losing ground badly. The politicians strike noble poses, and shrink away when the going gets rough. Instead of turning to scientists and doctors, we throw everything at the police and blame them when things get no better.

And now, in the past decade, the damage takes a chilling new turn: about one out of every five junkies, says Frazier, is HIV positive.

"There are 3,000 new HIV narcotics cases here a year," he says now. "Each case costs about $225,000 for treatment before they die. We want these people to get treatment. We want all the drug abusers to get treatment. But we estimate that one-third to one-half of drug abusers don't want treatment. Somewhere down the road, they will. They reach an age, and they burn out. But right now, they like being loaded.

"That says that somewhere between 17,000 and 25,000 addicts fTC are going to do what they do, no matter how we try to help them. So there has to be another way to fight this."

Early in his time at City Hall, the mayor of Baltimore launched an idea to attack drug abuse primarily as a health issue. This was misinterpreted as capitulation -- as free drugs for anybody who wanted them. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke caught such a barrage of criticism that he quickly withdrew, and his voice has been far more muted. But it's eight years later, and now others may be willing to rethink his original ideas.

In October 1993, an Abell Foundation report noted that, for all the talk of treatment programs, the city of Baltimore "spends barely $150,000 of city funds annually on treatment programs. Baltimore's capacity to offer quality treatment is diminishing just when it is most sorely needed."

That fall, a mayoral task force urged increasing treatment instead of jail, and training in addiction for doctors and nurses.

But, more than two years later, the jails are filled with drug traffickers, and the government still hasn't figured a way to successfully attack the problem medically. And we still imagine the police as the primary means of attack.

"It's time," Frazier said, "to discuss a new way. Among responsible people, talk about attacking it as a medical problem, a public health problem, as well as a criminal problem. I'm not talking about legalization. But if 25,000 addicts don't want help, and we can't arrest our way out of this, is it not time to talk about it? I think it is.

"I don't have the answer, but right now we need a mix of doctors, judges, social workers, people like that, to talk about new methods. We're gonna continue to arrest distributors, people who profit from sales, and anyone else who makes the neighborhoods a bad place to live. But we have to change our attack."

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