Ex-dealer is now selling recovery to addicts

August 24, 2005|By GREGORY KANE

JOHNNY JOHNSON'S first brush with the law came when he was a wee lad of 7. During his teen years, he slung drugs on West Baltimore's treacherous and deadly streets. He got out of the game after an undercover police officer gave him a break he didn't have to.

Today, the 30-year-old Johnson is a social worker, helping recovering addicts probably much like the ones he sold drugs to for eight years.

"I used to hold myself partly responsible for what happened" to those addicts, Johnson said recently while sitting at his desk at Project PLASE (People Lacking Ample Shelter and Employment). But these days, he feels his work with addicts, the homeless and the mentally ill make him part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Yes, Johnson is quite a different man from another former drug dealer who's the same age. Curtis James Jackson III, aka the rapper 50 Cent, dealt drugs in South Queens around the same time that Johnson sold cocaine, crack and heroin to addicts in West Baltimore. Both are young black men who grew up in a tough urban environment. Both dropped out of high school. The similarity ends there.

Police first picked up Johnson for dropping bricks off a bridge onto cars below. He was 7 years old. By the time he was 13, he felt it was time "to establish a name for myself."

Johnson had more than his share of neighborhood fights, which pitted him and his friends from the area of Baker and Rosedale streets against guys from other communities. He stole cars. He sold drugs. He had his share of arrests, but he said police officers never caught him with the goods. When he was picked up, it was for minor charges such as loitering.

Johnson's education took a back seat to his street life during those years. He remembers ditching his books - at one point hiding them in a neighborhood store - when he got home from school so his buddies wouldn't know he was interested in learning. Nor was education a priority in his house.

"There was pretty much no one telling us to go to school," Johnson said. "Nobody in my family had ever graduated college."

Johnson lived in that house with his younger brother, his grandmother, her children and a wealth of her grandkids.

"It was an overcrowded house," Johnson said, no doubt understating matters considerably.

Johnson attended William H. Lemmel Middle School, where he remembers one man he credits with "saving me from the streets." That was Paul Scofield, who Johnson said came to his house every Saturday morning to check up on him. (Scofield was principal at City College from the summer of 2004 until early this year.)

But Scofield's best efforts didn't stop Johnson from dropping out of Edmondson High School in his junior year. It took another benefactor for him to finally give up the street life.

While Johnson was dealing drugs, undercover police officers were taking pictures of him and other dealers. One of those officers pulled him aside and showed him those pictures. Johnson figures the guy must have seen some potential in him, because the police officer offered him a deal.

"If you go back to school," the officer told Johnson, "no charges will be brought against you." He also told Johnson to move out of his neighborhood and helped him enroll in Baltimore City Community College. (Johnson earned his General Educational Development certificate by going to evening and weekend classes at Walbrook High School.)

After BCCC, Johnson enrolled at Coppin State. He flunked out his sophomore year - he said he couldn't concentrate because so many of his boyhood friends were dying - but he returned and earned a degree in political science. He followed that with a master's degree in human services from the University of Baltimore. He's working on getting a doctorate from Howard University.

"My degrees are for all those people who were denied degrees or the chance to get them," Johnson said, speaking of all those blacks who lived in pre-Brown v. Board of Education America. "And for those who feel it's impossible."

Johnson is serious about education. He was appalled when he went to one of his 7-year-old son's Parent-Teacher Association meetings and saw only about 30 people in attendance. On another visit to his son's school, Johnson stayed an hour, helping not only his son (he also has a 3-year-old daughter) but also his classmates by checking their homework.

"If you don't get the kid by the time he enters school," Johnson said, "it's a done deal."

Johnson has spent the last six years as a case manager at Project PLASE helping to put back the shattered lives of addicts, in hopes that the deal isn't quite done for them just yet.

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