Norman Handy Sr. helps addicts from experience Heroin: The outspoken councilman and pastor who guides users to recovery knows how rough the path is because he has traveled it himself.

Sun Profile

August 03, 1998|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

The shirtless, knife-scarred man pushes a shopping cart round the Southwest Baltimore street corner, propelled by a heroin high and the need to get some things off his chest. Halting before the sneakered feet of city Councilman Norman A. Handy Sr., he lets loose a nonstop rant.

"I hustle. I steal. I cheat. And I shoot dope," the man shouts. "I use it because I like it."

Handy isn't hopeful, but he passes the man a card instructing him to seek drug counseling. He'd like to offer more than a card with a phone number, though. He'd like to give the man heroin -- daily doses through a government-sanctioned program. At least that way, he reasons, hard-core addicts wouldn't have to steal or commit other crimes to feed their habit.

Handy knows about junkies. For 10 years, he was a heroin addict.

His story is not much different from many young men in Baltimore's ravaged neighborhoods. He began many days with a needle in a vein. Ferried drugs from New York to Florida. Broke into houses and cars for cash. Betrayed his family. Ended up doing time in a Georgia prison.

Today, more than 20 years later, the 54-year-old man with the gray dreadlocks and dashikis is a Methodist minister and respected community leader. And if he keeps speaking up about doling out drugs to addicts, he could become America's loneliest politician.

Being perceived as condoning drug use is, of course, one of the great taboos of contemporary politics, and Handy has come perilously close. When Johns Hopkins Hospital doctors recently proposed a trial program to give heroin to addicts, Maryland's elected officials couldn't denounce the idea fast enough. Even Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who favors needle exchange programs, kept his distance. But Handy said it was worth trying.

His willingness to talk about his unlikely path to public life also sets him apart. Hardly any politicians confess to anything more serious than youthful "experimentation" with marijuana; It's a career-killer. Handy, though, is on a mission to offer hope to torn families and struggling communities.

Trespassing boundaries

"Winding up in prison was the thing that saved my life," he says. "The only way I stay drug-free is that I keep reminding myself that you never get over the temptation and you never get over the pain."

Handy is ashamed of the man he used to be. He can't explain his descent. Partly it was the times, he says. Partly, it was the undeniable pleasure; he knows all too well heroin's appeal to that addict on the corner. Partly, it was the money. It amazes him how easily he trespassed moral boundaries.

"I kept saying to myself that no one understands," Handy says. "I was going to school, I was employed and I was entitled to it."

Elected in 1995 to represent the 6th District, Handy relishes his role as voice for the powerless.

"There is a category of addict for which treatment has not worked," he told fellow council members in June. "I know a lot of brothers and sisters who would have opted for heroin maintenance instead of the grave or the life of crime."

He is soft-spoken but unrelenting. For months, the Democrat's treatises on drugs, inadequate housing or black empowerment would clear the council chambers faster than the pound of a gavel. His colleagues once gave him an ovation for not getting up to address them.

That sort of response doesn't faze him. He's lucky. He got off drugs. And now he can tool around the city on his Harley-Davidson. He can enjoy his grandchildren. He can choose what he puts in his body. "Meat is poison," he warns.

'So secretive'

Handy grew up in northeast Washington, the son of an alcoholic cab driver and a stay-at-home mother. He was a standout at St. Cyprius, the neighborhood Roman Catholic school. By the time he was 12, his parents had split up; he moved with his mother and four brothers to Prince George's County. At Fairmont Heights Senior High, Handy graduated in the top 10 percent of his class and was elected senior class president.

But he'd begun drinking regularly, a pattern that continued at Morgan State University. "It was not unusual for me to be intoxicated," he says.

And he threw himself into the tumult of Baltimore's civil rights protests, spending more time staging sit-ins at the Northwood Shopping Center than studying. He dropped out, went back to Washington and enlisted in the Air Force in May 1964 to avoid the draft.

It was in Vietnam that he first used drugs, Handy says. Serving as a communications specialist in Pleiku, away from any combat, he tried marijuana and hashish, just as others on base did during off-duty hours.

By the time he was discharged in 1968, he had graduated to heroin.

"When he came back he was so secretive," Vernon Handy, his older brother, recalls. "All he would do is sit in his room. He didn't say anything."

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