Drug abuse story much too familiar in Baltimore


At Fayette and Mount in West Baltimore, Timothy points to the shooting gallery and describes its ruined contents: the junkies staggering through barely furnished rooms, the heads nodding into oblivion, the television set that never goes off.

Outside the house are three people knocking on the door. They enter, stay a few minutes, then exit with furtive glances up and down the block. Again and again, the process will repeat itself.

Half a block away, on Fayette, a man moves through high grass on a vacant little lot and searches the ground. The inspection goes on for a long time. The man does not go away, though the RTC morning air is raw and the wind is chilling.

"He's drug sick," says Timothy. "He's looking for somebody's stash, he'll do whatever he can to get high."

Timothy knows the procedure. From his truck on Mount Street, he can see it all through the eyes of a former participant: the drug-sick mornings, the scramble for cash to get well, the visit to the old lady around the corner who sells needles for a dollar, the shooting gallery and the man inside supplying whatever was needed.

By now, the story is too familiar. We are far into our third decade of narcotics having become the scariest fact of urban life, and yet no one sees much daylight.

Major drug busts are now greeted with cynicism: Someone new will automatically replace the old dealer, so what's the difference? Presidential pledges of brand new wars on drugs are greeted with hoots: After all this time, the words are seen as empty political gestures.

"War on drugs?" says Timothy, pointing to the shooting gallery from Mount Street. "When you haven't even got the police to go after a house they know is sitting right there, where's the war?"

When the state of Maryland had to wipe out its $450 million budget deficit last winter, something had to give: funding for drug abuse, the cutting back or shutting down of treatment programs, the tightening of belts in police and state's attorneys' offices.

To handle all of the felony drug traffic in Baltimore, there are a total of 16 assistant state's attorneys in the narcotics unit, of whom a dozen prosecute drug cases daily.

And yet there is this:

"More than 50 percent of all felony cases in this city are now drug cases," says a veteran prosecutor. "Just drug cases. Understand the distinction. I'm not talking about drug-driven or drug-related cases, like housebreaking. Just drug cases. The other figure might be 90 percent."

Police talk of elementary school kids who are routinely part of the action now, holding dealers' stashes, acting as runners, bringing home outlandish money.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse says the average age of first-time drug users is now 13.

"Me?" says Timothy. "I started getting high every day when I was in the third grade."

He runs a freckled hand through his red hair. He was living in Baltimore County then, rushing home from school to go to a friend's house. The friend had marijuana.

By junior high, he says, he was using amphetamines.

In high school, he was getting high while playing varsity lacrosse.

"I had four different private schools that offered me lacrosse scholarships," he says. "But I didn't want to go. They didn't party enough."

Some party. Instead of becoming a player, he became a cliche: the abuser who can't stop himself, reduced to scrounging through mean streets for a fix.

The shooting gallery on Fayette became a kind of refuge.

"A girl I knew took me here," he says now. "You'd go in, give the guy your money, and he'd go outside and cop whatever you needed. No, he wouldn't look to hurt you. You're spending money, so he wants you to keep coming back."

An entire underground economy has been fueled by this kind of behavior, while no one in power figures out how to handle it.

One midnight, Timothy sat in the front room of the shooting gallery and watched a junkie keel over and die of an overdose.

Six hours later, somebody called for an ambulance and told the medics they thought the guy had fallen asleep.

Twice, Timothy says, he overdosed at the shooting gallery.

Once, junkies went outside and stole everything from his truck.

The second time, they dumped him at the front door of Bon Secours Hospital.

Two years ago, he says, when he first tried stopping, he went to a health clinic. Tests were run.

A doctor walked into the room, declared Timothy was HIV positive and walked back out of the room.

Across Fayette Street, the junkies seem oblivious to any of this.

With each passing month, the numbers show AIDS victims coming more and more from the ranks of needle abusers. No messages get through to them.

Nor to those in power: This system of fighting drug abuse isn't working.

The streets have gotten too dangerous, the victims too numerous.

Two years ago, the doctors told Timothy he had two years left to live.

Nobody gives narcotics traffic such a death sentence.

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