New approach to war on drugs concedes defeat

There was once a legal secretary named Missy, who had pearls around her neck and needle marks on her arms and went into basements on Kirk Avenue. And there was Earl, who stole from department stores with a clipboard in his hand, and Butch, who climbed through windows in South Baltimore. Nothing personal, they just had habits they needed to support.

Get used to these people. This is the newest message on narcotics addiction, as City Hall alerts us to the obvious: After 25 years of a so-called war on drugs, it's time to admit that drugs have won.


Forget that business about getting junkies off the hard stuff. It hasn't happened, not in numbers that are meaningful. The Mayor's Working Group on Drug Policy Reform admitted it last week, though not in so many words, so we'd better try to translate what group members were saying.

They talked about increasing methadone treatments, for example. This is a drug used for years to get junkies off heroin, only it's even more addictive than heroin. Two decades ago, you could go to Pennsylvania Avenue and Mosher Street, to a drug program called Project Adapt, and watch all the junkies line up for their daily methadone.


The sight could make you sick. There were a thousand people at Project Adapt, and thousands more who wanted to join but couldn't. There wasn't any room. And so you were sickened by the long lines of the addicted and the fallout all around them: neighborhood kids getting clued too early to a vision of human decay; business people watching an already-troubled community crumble; and neighborhood residents wishing these strangers would go away.

But they never did. In those days, the early '70s, the city talked of maybe 20,000 needle addicts. Now it talks of twice that number, though nobody really knows. Junkies don't line up for census counts. But there are a lot of them, and instead of having them line up at places such as Pennsylvania and Mosher for a methadone fix to cure their heroin fix, the new notion is to bring the methadone to various neighborhoods, stock it in vans, make it easier than ever for the junkies to get it.

There is a certain logic to this, which is the logic underlying much of this new proposal: We cannot break people's addictions, which means we cannot stop the ruinous course of this city, but maybe we can reduce the trouble they cause. If they can get free methadone, instead of expensive heroin and cocaine, maybe they won't break into people's houses.

It's a big maybe. On the evidence of 25 years of limited methadone exposure, it still leaves us with the ones like Earl, who's out there somewhere. When last seen, he was lifting department store merchandise with sheer brass: Walk in with a clipboard and a phony name badge, and act as if you're an employee as you wheel stuff out of the place.

And the ones like Butch, who operates out of South Baltimore and once explained how to get rid of stolen merchandise of a certain size: Take it to a fence, a handler of stolen goods, and let the fence sell the stuff for you.

"Big stuff," said Butch, who was strictly a small-time guy.

"Big like what?" he was asked. "Like an electric typewriter?"

"No," he explained. "Big like a Xerox machine."


And we're left, in a sense, with the ones like Missy, even though she is gone now. Missy used to leave her law office after work and head for Kirk Avenue. Everybody at work thought Missy was a yuppie princess. On Kirk Avenue, she went into darkened basements and handed over money for a fix, until she died a few years ago, without seeing 30, under conditions a little unclear.

Failing overdose, or various other unscheduled deaths, these people do not leave. Last week's recommendations are a tacit acknowledgment of this, and a sign that new methods must be tried.

Are these the correct ones? There's a needle-exchange program to stem the spread of HIV. It makes sense -- but it doesn't precisely cut into the addict population. There's a call for less emphasis on arresting nonviolent drug users. They clog the courts and the prisons, and the moment they come back out, they're back into drug trafficking.

So get used to them all. Maybe treating them like patients instead of criminals will turn the corner. Maybe the spread of methadone will help (as long as they're dispensing it in somebody else's neighborhood.)

Maybe it'll keep the ones like Earl from stealing out of department stores and the ones like Butch from breaking into houses. Or maybe it's one more blind alley in the drug fight, in which case everybody hopes it will lead merely to the case of Missy, who gave everybody a break by the mere act of dying.