An unexpected casualty in Balto. Co.'s war on drugs

January 12, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AS MIKE Gimbel drives through the streets of Baltimore County, he says he sees pretty good signs up ahead. He's working on a new drug program for private schools. He's talking to the Archdiocese of Baltimore about some ideas. He's still getting love letters and phone calls from people who can't believe the thing that happened to him. He says he's doing fine. Baltimore County should be doing so well.

Barely a month after Gimbel's firing as director of the county's Bureau of Substance Abuse, a job he created and then held for 23 years, the traffic ahead of him is pretty clear.

But the county's drug traffic is another story. It is, by all accounts, growing. And so is the anxiety of people who are supposed to handle it.

The most famous frightening statistic everybody hears is "55,000."

That's the estimated number of city drug addicts (plus an estimated 17,000 alcoholics).

But Baltimore County now estimates about 30,000 substance abusers, figuring drugs and drink. It is not the way safe suburbia likes to think of itself.

"The numbers sound about right," says Dr. Peter Beilenson, the city's health director. "They now have probably about half the drug and alcohol problem we have. But they've been in much more denial about it than we have."

Not anymore.

In interviews last week, the new county executive, James T. Smith Jr., and the county health officer, Dr. Michelle A. Leverett, talked in distressing tones about the drug problem.

Leverett's the one who lowered the boom on Gimbel. Two weeks after Smith took office, she called the new county executive and said she wanted Gimbel removed.

Smith, dealing with a blizzard of issues in his new job, knew Gimbel's record pretty well. He knew about Gimbel's intensive work in the public schools, knew how he'd taken the old Rosewood State Hospital property and put 260 treatment beds there, and knew how he'd built the county drug office from nothing to an $11 million-a-year operation with 110 staffers.

In his 16 years as a county judge, Smith also saw how government efforts were getting overwhelmed.

"This is one of those plagues that knows no borders," Smith said last week. "When I sat on the bench, I'd estimate 90 percent of the street crime and a third of the domestic trauma was drug-related."

He left the decision on Gimbel to Leverett, who called Gimbel to a late-afternoon meeting in the closing days of last year and said, "I want to inform you, there's no place for you in the new administration." Gimbel says he never got a reason why.

A week after her action, Leverett said the job "has to involve more than publicity," and that she needed a "well-qualified team player."

The remarks stung. Gimbel has been a familiar presence on the TV news. But it was part of his philosophy that the problem had to be talked about openly.

When he first started speaking in school auditoriums, he remembers, "the kids were laughing at us. You know, at that age, they think they're invincible, nothing can happen to them, it'll be somebody else. If they're not in trouble yet, they think we're lying to them.

"Meanwhile, the numbers kept getting higher and higher. Then the kids started going to the funerals of their friends. It hit them in their gut: `Wow, it could happen to me.' Or they saw their friends burned out early. But they have to get a gut-level feeling, and that's a hard thing to get across to kids. You've got to keep talking."

Regarding Gimbel's dismissal, Leverett will now talk not at all. About the county's drug problems, she's saying things previously unspoken.

"This is not the Baltimore County of 20 years ago," she said last week. "It is a myth when people say we don't have a serious drug problem in the county. It's absolutely untrue, and we have to acknowledge this. Our kids are being exposed to drugs, and to their parents' problems, on a regular basis. Heroin and cocaine [use] are up significantly. Hospital admissions are up.

"In fact, we're seeing bigger percentage increases than the city. And the impact, on crime, on AIDS cases, and on parents burying children, is very troubling."

None of this is meant to indict Gimbel. Over 23 years, he was clearly a valuable part of the county's drug fight.

But Gimbel got caught in bureaucratic infighting. His high public profile rubbed some people the wrong way. And as drug traffic spread to the county, new approaches didn't always mesh with Gimbel's ideas.

County Executive Smith now talks about approaching area hospitals to open residential treatment and outpatient facilities.

"We've got to involve medical experts in locations that are secure and have community acceptance," Smith says.

In Baltimore County, that phrase - "community acceptance" - carries weight. There is no more denying the influx of drugs. And Mike Gimbel, out front in the fight for so long, is its latest victim.

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