DURING MY first months as a reporter in Baltimore, I spent many hours doing street work. I did a lot of walking, knocking on the doors of strangers, asking them what they felt about this topic or that. Sometimes I would drop into a corner store or a church office. People sitting on the steps of their house were usually good for a comment.
Sometimes I was on the east side, but more often on the west. I usually didn't venture too far from Pennsylvania Avenue, but I would walk for blocks in the Upton, Sandtown-Winchester and Druid Heights neighborhoods. Whenever I did, I was watched as much as I was watching. Young drug dealers tried to size me up. What was I? Customer or cop?
I was never hassled by them, nor I did expect to be. I learned a long time ago that the last thing drug dealers want is to create a scene. If you don't bother them, they usually won't bother you. But you have to be wary of their customers, some of whom are desperate enough to rob an easy mark like me to pull together enough cash for a purchase.
Each evening as I left the city for my home here in Howard County, I would think that where I worked and where I lived couldn't be more different. But I have learned over the past four years that the two environments have similarities that aren't immediately obvious. You don't see drug peddlers and addicts making deals on Howard County street corners, but they're here.
Like most parents who chose this area as a good place to raise children, I didn't want to believe that. I was skeptical of news reports that drug problems in Howard County are growing. Not even the story last January of the North Laurel teacher who was discovered passed out on heroin in the school bathroom moved me.
Months later, when I got a chance to talk to Police Chief Wayne Livesay, I suggested that the local drug situation had been exaggerated. He assured me that was not the case, that undercover detectives who in the past hardly ever saw heroin in the county now find it relatively easy to locate someone selling it here.
It's all a matter of who you know. Drug dealers in Howard County don't drum up business by passing out free samples, the way they do in Baltimore. Most deals here are among friends. Someone goes into the city and buys enough drugs for his or her use and a few sales to acquaintances.
Baltimore police arrested 110 people in five drug sweeps this year in southwest neighborhoods. Of those, 76 didn't live in the city. Twenty-five were from Baltimore County; 23 from Anne Arundel; 15 from Howard; three from Carroll; two each from Prince George's and Montgomery; one from Frederick; and five from out of state.
These traffickers are not dealt with harshly. The city's courts are overwhelmed by the crimes associated with the estimated 50,000 drug addicts in Baltimore. Those arrested with fewer than 30 vials of crack or a large amount of heroin will likely have their cases treated as misdemeanors.
They may have to pay a fine or bail. There may be an impound fee to recover a confiscated car. But within hours, or a day at most, they are usually free to go back home to the 'burbs. Eventually, the drug addicts will return to the city to renew one particular form of regional cooperation that we all would be better off without.
Chief Livesay says most of the heroin abusers are teen-agers and young adults looking for some meaning to their lives. In wealthy Howard County, they are more likely to have idle time and money for "recreational" drugs.
These young people aren't scared by stories of addicts getting AIDS or hepatitis from sharing a dirty needle. They don't shoot up. Today's heroin is so cheap and pure, they can snort it to get high. But as their tolerance increases, some have to inject the drug to get the feeling they desire.
Maybe that's what happened to the 17-year-old boy found dead a week ago, slumped against a tree near Triadelphia Reservoir. Two people walked past and noticed he wasn't moving. They returned a short time later, and he was still there. Police found a small plastic bag and a hypodermic needle, a telltale puncture mark on his arm.
Overdose amid affluence
There he was, in a setting of verdant serenity abutting neighborhoods of suburban affluence. This was no back alley. There was no squalor. No constant wail of sirens. No fear to take a walk at night, as the couple who found the dead youth had done.
But the situation was the same that Baltimore police may find on any of the worst of city streets. A suspected junkie dead of an apparent overdose. His parents and friends left to wonder how things could have gotten so out of hand.
Howard police have started a program they call HELP, to tell parents how to detect heroin use in their children. The meetings have not been well-attended.
My talk with Chief Livesay set me straight. But a lot of other county residents have concluded that they don't see a drug problem so it must not exist. Many won't acknowledge the reality their own homes until it is too late.
Harold Jackson writes editorials about Howard County for The Sun.
Pub Date: 6/28/98