Awash in drugs, city needs more help

This Just In...

April 07, 2000|By Dan Rodricks

I HEARD A WOMAN with many years of experience in the law here describe the effort to make Baltimore safer through get-tough reforms of the criminal justice system -- the establishment of a 24-hour court, the employment of aggressive New York-style police tactics -- as "the attempt to bail out a sinking boat with a rotten hull." The rot, in her metaphor, was drug addiction.

Cynical maybe. But who can argue with that?

At the core of Baltimore's crime problem is heroin and cocaine.

And it's not just the city's problem. It's Maryland's. Drug addiction is a poison that filters from the city to the suburbs and back again. Baltimore might be the sports, cultural and economic center of Maryland, but it's also the prime market for heroin and coke. In addition to the thousands of addicts we call our own, we have dope-heads driving here from the Washington suburbs and southern Pennsylvania to take advantage of our daily street sales.

Drug addiction is often at the root of crime, family dysfunction, child abuse, the abandonment of neighborhoods.

Yeah, I know: We've been hip to this for a long time.

But for a long time, the war on drugs was largely a supply-side war, aimed at drug traffickers and dealers, when the attack should have gone more demand-side, aimed at addicts.

In recent years the city intensified its strategy for treating addicts and increased funding by millions of dollars. But it hasn't been enough to handle the demand. There are waiting lists for treatment. We have between 55,000 and 60,000 drug addicts, and funding for 6,600 treatment slots.

This year, the health commissioner, Peter Beilenson, asked for an additional $40 million toward more comprehensive drug treatment to be implemented over the next year or so.

Pie in the sky maybe, but Beilenson put his job on the line.

"If Baltimore's crime rate is not cut in half within three years of obtaining $40 million in additional funding for drug treatment," he said, "I will resign."

No one took him up on the offer.

That includes the governor of Maryland, who owes his political life to the city of Baltimore, and the lieutenant governor, who will need voters here to support her likely campaign for the state's top job in 2002.

The new mayor, Martin O'Malley, had asked the Glendening administration for $25 million for drug treatment to back up his 24-hour court at the Central Booking and Intake Center. The state had a record budget surplus of $1 billion, and billions more coming its way from the settlement of the lawsuit against Big Tobacco. This should have been the year the city got what it needed for a full-throttle attack on drug addiction.

But, after cutting deals left and right to get support for his gun-lock bill and other pet projects, the governor came up with $8 million to help Baltimore deal with its most destructive problem. Eight million bucks is nothing to sneer at, but it doesn't come close to what the city needs. The boat is still sinking. The hull is still rotten. And all the governor did was hand Baltimore another bucket.

'They saved her life'

Tuesday morning, March 21. Heavy rain. Rush hour, 8: 25 a.m. Anne Arundel County, Route 100 at the on-ramp to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. In that place at that time on that day in those conditions, we find Marion Harris at the wheel of her 1994 Ford Explorer.

As the Explorer approaches the parkway, it hits a sheet of water and goes into a long spin and slide. The police call it hydroplaning. Sometimes you can come out of it safely. Sometimes you can't. Marion Harris doesn't.

The Explorer not only bounces off the road, but it flips and lands in a muddy ditch. Harris, a middle-aged college professor from Columbia, finds herself suddenly seated upside down, strapped into her seat, and the seat belt pulling painfully against her midsection. She reaches the seat belt buckle but can't release it. She keeps pressing the wrong side of it. Harris is a diabetic, and now, with her body under stress, she feels confused, disoriented, shocked and weak.

Suddenly faces appear at her window -- three strangers out of the rush hour, already wet and muddy. A woman and two men. "Are you all right? ELLIPIS Hold on, we'll help you!" One of the men opens the rear hatch of the Explorer, crawls through, reaches Harris, cradles her head and neck and releases the seat belt. He passes Harris to the other man. Police and an ambulance are there by the time Harris, dazed, gets to her feet. No broken bones. The strangers disappear as quickly as they arrived. Harris never gets their names.

But she is so grateful, so immensely grateful. She's in therapy for a sprained back and an injured knee, and thinks every day about those muddy rush-hour strangers. "I've been blessed," she says. "They saved my life."

A historic tour

Joey Amalfitano, TJI cultural correspondent, reports:

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