Free heroin a fix for drug problems?

June 11, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In yesterday's early-morning drizzle, he was standing on Park Heights Avenue, near the abandoned wreck of the old Avalon movie theater that once inexplicably showed off a "Mayor Schmoke Makes Us Proud" poster and more recently (and still inexplicably) showed a "Rehrmann for Governor" poster, and he was faced with the day's usual business: Finding a little heroin to put into any convenient vein in the abused wreck of his body.

"Free?" he said.

"That's what they're talking about," he was told.

The morning newspaper, in a front-page story headlined "Test of 'heroin maintenance' may be launched in Baltimore," described the possibility of a controlled study here in which heroin would be distributed to hard-core addicts, in an effort to reduce crime and AIDS and other narcotics fallout.

"Free?" he asked again.

He had to think about this for a minute. He wore a blue jogging suit acquired during a recent shoplifting jaunt a few blocks from here. The suit hung loosely from his bony frame. Ducking out of the morning's scattery raindrops now, he stepped around clumps of trash on the sidewalk and stood beneath the Avalon's battered marquee.

Once, this theater rang with the laughter of children whose parents had no concerns about leaving them unattended for an entire afternoon. Later, it became a radio station whose music captured the glad rhythms of its time.

For about three decades, though -- roughly the time of America's failed 30-year war on drugs -- the building's been abandoned and allowed to rot, and has become one of the symbols of decay along lower Park Heights Avenue, which some police call the city's grubbiest narcotics thoroughfare.

Such is the result of decades of American politicians striking noble poses as grand protectors of the people, and then turning the whole business over to the cops, who are so overmatched in sheer numbers that neighborhoods have fallen, and are populated by those who wander its streets in search of a fix, who break into houses, who knock over old ladies for their purses and have fueled the abandonment of cities such as Baltimore.

"Well, I ain't saying," the guy in the jogging suit says now. He means, about the heroin distribution plan. All efforts involving institutional effort are to be pondered: Is this some kind of setup? Will there be registration forms, unwanted tails by the cops, strange substances more insidious than heroin secretly slipped into injections?

He knows the thinking behind the plan, because everyone does: All other efforts have failed. This guy's been doing heroin for nearly a decade. He runs a jumble of figures through the air -- the cost of a shot, the amount of money needed to be swiped or the amount of goods needed to be stolen and the number of hits he needs a day.

All of it equals a city ravaged by thousands of desperate people, and scores of places like lower Park Heights Avenue and the old Avalon theater.

Remember the Avalon and the city's last campaign for mayor? When Kurt L. Schmoke's campaign workers put his infamous "Makes Us Proud" poster across the marquee, it provoked hoots of bitter invective. Proud? Of this dump? Of a place allowed to deteriorate while City Hall looked the other way?

Then, as if no lessons had been learned, Eileen M. Rehrmann's campaign workers put up her poster on the same marquee a few weeks ago. This time, there were such outcries the poster was taken down. But the hoots took on a new angle this time: If she could trumpet her campaign on such a dump, she was just one more isolated suburban lady cut off from the city's realities.

So now there's a new plan for what may be the city's harshest reality, narcotics: Fight it by yielding a little. Offer heroin to those addicts who have refused, or failed, at traditional drug treatment.

"It's not going out on the streets and handing out heroin," Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson told The Sun's Scott Shane. "It would be carefully controlled by health care providers under a research protocol."

Beilenson, by the way, was one of scores of health officials, politicians and educators who sent a letter last week to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan declaring, "The global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself," noting that annual revenue generated by illegal drugs is now about $400 billion, or "the equivalent of roughly eight percent of total international trade.

"This industry," the letter said, "has empowered organized criminals, corrupted governments at all levels, eroded internal security, stimulated violence, and distorted both economic markets and moral values. These are the consequences not of drug use per se, but of decades of failed and futile drug war policies."

On Park Heights Avenue, nobody has to explain this to the guy in the jogging suit, nor to those living in the neighborhood who see the junkies on street corners, who worry over vulnerable old ladies with their purses, who watch the endless exodus to suburbia, and who see the old Avalon theater as the symbol of a community whose bones have been picked over.

Is this new plan the answer? Not even the street junkies know, and they're at the heart of it. But everybody knows, 30 years of so-called wars on drugs have failed beyond redemption.

Pub Date: 6/11/98

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