Dear Baltimore drug dealers


September 24, 2005

With that salutation began an appeal in this newspaper for the men and women selling cocaine, heroin and marijuana in Baltimore to ease up for the summer. Quit the guns, give them a rest. Peddle the powder and weed, if you must. But don't re-up the inventory. Chill in the season of steamed crabs and beer, cold watermelon and shaved ice.

Sun columnist Dan Rodricks' open letter June 9 to the salesmen in this vast, lucrative, illicit industry was a pitch for a little peace and quiet in Baltimore neighborhoods, a plea to stop the turf battles that too often end up with blood in the streets. His crazy, ridiculous - those are his words - proposition offered dealers a prescription for a civic duty that could possibly save a few lives. Theirs and others.

Aren't you tired of it too?

Since Mr. Rodricks asked that question three months ago, more than 250 people have contacted him: drug users and dealers, mostly men, their grandmothers and relatives, recovering addicts and other citizens willing to help. Rather than push dope for $50 a day, most involved in the drug trade said they wanted a real job. They wanted out of a dead-end life because they were too old for the pace, too weary for another prison stay, too fearful of the competition, too embarrassed to face their kids.

What began as one writer's appeal for a summer moratorium on drug-turf shootings has evolved into a campaign to rally support and jobs for ex-offenders.

In one telephone conversation after another, enough to fill a stack of legal pads, Dan Rodricks heard from guys looking for a way out. The more who talked to him, the more columns he wrote, offering his readers a stark yet poignant view of his callers and insights on how they could be helped, one step at a time, one man at a time:

"People think we [sell drugs] to just come outside and be tough or hard. We do it to survive. Right now, there isn't much food in my mother's house."

"I have four children. I got to find some way to help with my family."

"It's time for me to step up to the plate and show our young ones that [drug dealing] ain't cool anymore. And one time before I leave this world I want to hear my mother say she's proud of me, instead of shakin' her head and asking, 'Why you keep selling that poison to your people?'"

The Rodricks columns - more than two dozen - have profiled several callers and their sorry pasts in the game and in prison, emphasized the need for accessible, available drug treatment, suggested jobs for ex-offenders, implored government to do its part, and showcased the public and private programs such as Moveable Feast, STRIVE Baltimore and the Maryland Re-Entry Partnership that help train and employ ex-cons.

What's encouraging and instructive has been the public's response, one person at a time, to the Rodricks drumbeat. At least 14 ex-offenders who called Mr. Rodricks found jobs with private businesses; 13 others found work through Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake; 24 entered a Goodwill job training program. The Sun columnist has passed on possible job opportunities to others, and others still tell him of more job leads.

This is networking at the most basic level and scale for a group of Baltimoreans desperate for a second chance and eager for an opportunity to prove themselves worthy of it.

Goodwill and others are pairing ex-offenders with empathetic employers, partnering that should be replicated, one business at a time. Some business owners have taken the initiative themselves. Guys are loading brick, doing excavation work, busing tables, working as a cook.

Kevin Gambrill, 39, found himself two jobs. His heroin addiction helped send him to prison, but once released, he got some drug treatment, returned to his family and, through a Rodricks tip, landed his initial job at Bo Brooks Restaurant in Canton.

Dealers and users have a choice to make, as Mr. Rodricks put it: Live or die. If they choose to live, theirs will be a life of fits and starts, of struggle to stay clear of the poison, of recovery and its winding path, of rewards, however small.

The public's choice is not so stark, but the imperative should be to help those who want help. A criminal record shouldn't automatically bar ex-offenders from a job. Let's give them a choice other than returning to the corner this fall. A decent-paying job can keep them out of the game. It can help support families too long neglected. It can make a difference in the life of a city if more individuals take one step at a time, for one man at a time.

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