Call for dialogue mocks desperation of drug crisis


With a miserable rain falling outside this dank, crowded room on Madison Avenue, City Councilman Norman Handy, wishing to change the city's attack on narcotics traffic, says something that causes me to get up from my chair and walk completely out of the building, and never mind the rain.

"We must get this dialogue out," Handy tells a crowd of about 40 people. "Or, should I say, get it into the conversational mode."

Dialogue? Conversational mode? This is the sound of speechifying for its own sake, of self-important, inflated language used mainly to hear itself being used, of words grown intoxicated by their own empty sound. Here we are, a quarter-century into what everyone agrees is a disastrous approach to the thing that tears apart entire communities, and we're still doing battle between dialogues and conversational modes, still talking ourselves to death while a city convulses.

In East Baltimore last week, two innocent people were shot for the crime of being in the wrong neighborhood. James Chester Streeter, 28, a deacon at his church, was killed while delivering coats to needy friends, and Mary Jackson, 65, standing in her kitchen, was shot in the leg by a bullet that passed through two metal security doors.

Such things happen. Police figure drug involvement. They say a man stepped from an alley off North Avenue and fired several shots at a guy on Collington Avenue. He missed his target and hit Streeter and Jackson instead.

While this was going on, we had Erick McCrary, a seven-year veteran of the Baltimore police, formally charged with bribery in an alleged scheme to protect a convicted heroin dealer, Anthony Jones. This Jones is 22. He was last arrested in February, on a gun charge, and released on bail. Bail, for a guy reputed to recruit children for his million-dollar drug business.

Shall we dialogue about this some more?

Shall we place it in the conversational mode?

At week's end, we learned that the mayor of Baltimore, Kurt L. Schmoke, has drafted a $26 million plan to double the size of treatment programs for drug addicts. It signals, belatedly, an echo of earlier words from the mayor, a desire to focus on care instead of punishment for those with drug problems.

Will anyone take it seriously? Who knows? The city being broke, the mayor wants considerable funding from the private sector, which staggers from the cost of drug-driven crime but balks at new (and expensive) means of attack.

Will the mayor stand by his proposal? Who knows? It's nearly a decade since he first launched this idea of treating drugs as a health problem instead of a crime. It was much discussed for a ZTC few ticks of the clock. One night, Schmoke was on Ted Koppel's "Nightline" television show. So was New York Rep. Charles Rangel, who virtually shouted Schmoke down.

Almost no one came to the mayor's defense and so, like that, almost all serious talk disappeared. The mayor didn't back away from his notion, but he managed not to bring it up in public. The heat was too much. And the city continued to pursue the old, discredited, impossible national approach of jailing any junkies for whom there was still room behind bars.

But there are recent changes in the wind. Several months ago, police Commissioner Thomas Frazier began talking of treatment instead of jail. From a lawman, this carried impressive weight. The city has 50,000 drug addicts, including the highest per-capita rate of heroin use in the country. A year ago, there were 18,000 drug arrests.

Did anyone see crime going away from all these arrests? No. We see innocent people shot by accident, and children recruited to be the next generation of the desperate, and cops wondering if they should cash in on some of the action.

Along with Frazier's remarks, there have been meetings: leaders in business, health, politics, talking about changing the attack from jail to treatment. And, last week, there was Frazier again, telling the Baltimore City Council he'd rather spend tax dollars for treatment of drug abusers, and not incarceration.

Tomorrow night, the council is expected to vote on Frazier's reconfirmation to a six-year term.

Would a vote for Frazier signal a new turn in the drug approach? Not necessarily. Go back to Councilman Norman Handy. While he had the gumption to sponsor a recent bill stressing treatment over prison, his language is an echo of 25 years of empty words, bloated, unfocused, full of holes. Dialogue, indeed. Conversational mode, indeed.

We don't know if a change in attack would unwittingly create an atmosphere tolerable for new drug abusers, and thus a new generation of the poor and the dependent. We don't know if Baltimore would be making itself attractive to out-of-state junkies looking for a friendly haven. We don't know exactly who would get treatment.

After all these years, the people running the show are still scrambling for answers.

Mayor Schmoke says jailing addicts is costly and ineffective. He's right on both counts. But he said the same thing a decade ago, which was 15 years into a failed American drug policy, and then he let himself be silenced. And now, 10 years later, we wonder if he'll stick by his beliefs, or simply continue to dialogue, to take part in the old, exasperating conversational mode.

Pub Date: 4/06/96

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