If these men were not in this Hampden halfway house trying to escape the shackles of drug addiction, they know just what they would be doing. They did it for years.
Joe Green would be burgling homes along quiet cul-de-sacs in Baltimore County. Todd Holland would be dipping in the till at his job as a waiter in a downtown hotel. Kevin Herbert would be looting the Superfresh in Cockeysville, stuffing his backpack with deodorant and batteries, then slipping out the entrance to dodge the cashiers.
And Stanford Cooley, 33, would be taking neighbors' orders for food to shoplift or visiting suburban department stores to ply the fine art of reverse shopping. He'd retrieve receipts from trash cans, collect the items on the receipts and "return" the goods for a refund. "You just have to be careful to match up the code numbers on the price tags," he earnestly explains.
But for now, the fierce daily struggle these men have waged to raise $50 or $75 for heroin and cocaine is over.
Baltimore has embarked on an extraordinary experiment by more than doubling spending on drug treatment, from about $15 million to $32 million a year. Most of the new money was shifted from city housing, social services and health programs; the rest was donated by the Open Society Institute of financier George Soros and other private foundations.
"I've been in this field 20 years, and for 20 years we had to rob Peter to pay Paul to buy toilet paper," says Ruth Daiker, director of The Counseling Center, a treatment program that operates the Hampden halfwayhouse where Cooley and the other addicts have found refuge. "Now all of a sudden we can get tutoring, we can get housing, we can get medical care. I've never seen so many people continue in treatment."
As fish cakes sizzle for lunch, the men sit around the Counseling Center's rowhouse on Falls Road and offer firsthand testimony on what might be called the drug tax. It is a hidden tax, collected without benefit of bureaucrats or bills.
It is paid by the public in higher prices to cover addicts' frantic thievery; to keep them locked in prison; to pay their medical bills when they develop AIDS from sharing needles and take years to die. It is a regional tax, afflicting suburbs where larceny is most lucrative as well as the city where addiction is epidemic.
In Baltimore, where state officials estimate the number of illicit drug users who need treatment at more than 50,000, or 1 in 10 adults, the tax is colossal. Because stolen goods sell for a fraction of their value on the street, an addict might steal $500 worth of goods in a day -- and break $1,000 in car windows -- to support a $50 habit.
'Treatment on demand'
The city's dramatic move to reduce the drug tax by moving toward "treatment on demand" resulted from the conviction of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the city's top police, health and housing officials that narcotics are the root of so much urban evil that it is worth cutting other programs to attack addiction.
The treatment initiative comes 10 years after Schmoke's bombshell speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors advocating drug decriminalization. It catapulted him onto network television -- and prompted predictions that he would prove a one-term mayor.
Now in his third term, Schmoke has moderated his language, preferring the less inflammatory "medicalization." But the country has moved slowly toward his view that the drug war is a failure and that addiction is more effectively and humanely treated as a disease than punished as a crime.
"There are more people from the law enforcement and military establishments today who say publicly that we can't prosecute our way out of this problem," Schmoke says. "Many were thinking that, even in 1988. Few would say it out loud."
In 1988, Maryland's prison population was 12,952; by last year, it had climbed to 21,928, largely as a result of the war on drugs. Yet there has been no perceptible reduction in drug use and only a modest decline in property crime.
Despite countless millions spent on drug interdiction, Baltimore teen-agers routinely set themselves up in the cocaine business by connecting with a wholesaler on any of a hundred New York corners. There is a such a heroin glut that purity has climbed for years, making it popular to snort the drug rather than inject it. In 1996, Baltimore had the highest rate of drug-related emergency room visits of any city tracked by the federal Drug Abuse Warning Network.
"Seven years ago, when I came here, I thought law enforcement and incarceration were the answer to drug addiction," says LaMont W. Flanagan, who runs the Baltimore City Detention Center as commissioner of pretrial detention. "Now I believe that only complicates the problem. Criminality is only the result of the addiction disease."
One in three arrests