Drugs worsen in city, U.S. says


Baltimore's notorious drug epidemic is even worse than law enforcement officials had realized previously, a new federal assessment shows.

The report on Baltimore's drug culture, from a three-month study by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, concluded that the problem cannot be solved quickly - or by police alone.

DEA officials briefed top police commanders this week on the assessment, which Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris requested this spring.

"It confirms a lot of the suspicions we had," Norris said yesterday. "The drug problem is more serious than most major cities in America."

Baltimore officials say they plan to use the information to bolster their argument that the city has a crisis that requires more help from the federal government if it is to stand a chance of reversing the decades-long trends.

That help, Norris said, might include requests for more DEA agents in Baltimore, more money for drug-enforcement police and more money for drug-treatment facilities for addicts.

The assessment, based on DEA intelligence and statistics, as well as independent research, concluded Baltimore is the "most heroin-plagued" city in the United States and has one of the most severe crack cocaine epidemics in the nation.

The DEA reported that the city has become a major market for South American heroin that is "significantly" purer than the national average. The study also asserted that use of the designer club drug "Ecstasy" has rapidly increased, particularly among suburban users, who come to the city to buy it.

Norris said DEA officials told him that at least $1.5 million in cash is exchanged every day during street-level drug deals - a statistic the commissioner called "a conservative estimate."

Special Agent William R. Hocker, a DEA spokesman, would not say how agents formed their assessment, but he released a summary of the agency's findings last week.

Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore's health commissioner, said he was surprised by the DEA findings regarding the use of Ecstasy and crack cocaine because so few of those addicts have shown up in city drug treatment programs.

"Ecstasy and crack is not something we have heard a lot about," he said. "Clearly we have a major heroin problem and somewhat of a cocaine problem, but by far the primary drug of choice is heroin."

Baltimore leads the nation in per-capita heroin use, DEA said.

"None of it terribly surprises me," said Mayor Martin O'Malley, who was elected last year on an anti-crime platform. "Part of it is our fault for not having asked for help and more money sooner."

Norris is expected to announce the details of the assessment within a few weeks after briefing top city officials and the region's congressional delegation.

O'Malley and Norris said they want to develop a strategy for leveraging more resources from the U.S. Department of Justice and the DEA.

The police commissioner said he wants more DEA agents assigned in Baltimore and more federal funds to help the department triple its number of drug enforcement officers, now about 100.

City officials also estimate they need at least $25 million to provide enough drug treatment slots so that every addict who seeks help or is ordered into treatment can get it within 24 hours - another of O'Malley's goals.

Baltimore is estimated to have at least 60,000 drug addicts - roughly 10 percent of the population - and police say drugs are a factor in eight of every 10 city homicides.

O'Malley also said a third piece of his administration's anti-drug strategy is the launch of "faith-based youth intervention" programs.

With the federal help and the three-pronged approach, Norris and O'Malley said, they believe the drug epidemic will be under control - but certainly not gone - in two to three years, similar to New York's success in stemming its crack cocaine outbreak recently.

The crack epidemic, which officials say largely missed Baltimore when it swept through other cities in the late 1980s, is now "a large, entrenched market with violent and dynamic distributors," according to the DEA summary.

The city has had a thriving heroin market since the 1970s, but the DEA reported that Baltimore has now become a center for distribution of a unique form of heroin processed in South America that is "significantly higher in purity" than the national average.

A few years ago, South American cocaine cartels began producing high-grade heroin to respond to American's increasing demand for the drug, the DEA's Hocker said.

The cartels - trying to avoid a battle with traditional heroin distributors from Southeast Asia who were established in New York and Miami - chose Baltimore as one of their U.S. distribution points, he said.

Baltimore also continues to lead the country in both heroin- and cocaine-related hospital emergency room admissions, according to the DEA.

In the first six months of the year, 159 of every 100,000 residents entered a Baltimore emergency room for a heroin-related overdose or medical condition, according to statistics from the Drug Abuse Warning Network, cited by the DEA.

Philadelphia was second, with 124 admissions per 100,000 residents, DAWN reported.

Hocker said marijuana is being sold citywide in small amounts - such as in $5 or $10 quantities - and on any given day there are several hundred pounds of the drug on the streets.

The city's fastest-growing drug problem is with Ecstasy, also known as MDMA, which is sold in and near nightclubs and has a strong presence in southeast Baltimore neighborhoods such as Highlandtown, Fells Point and Canton, Hocker said.

The drug, sold in $20 tablets, is said to produce euphoric effects and reduce inhibitions, but some researchers say it can cause long-term brain damage.

Though DEA officials said they are planning some operations aimed at the Ecstasy market, O'Malley said the drug is not as important as curbing violent gangs that deal heroin and cocaine.

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