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Drug court graduate cherishes fresh gift of hope


THE "DIPLOMA" he received Friday morning in the large ceremonial courtroom in the grand old courthouse in downtown Baltimore was not the first in Jerome Anderson's 53 years. He'd graduated from City College and obtained a bachelor's degree from Antioch when that Ohio-based university had a satellite campus in Baltimore. And let's not forget the master's degree in social work from Howard University, either.

Years ago - what must seem to him like three lifetimes ago - Jerome Anderson was on the smart track to further his education and have a successful career in human services. He was married. He was a father.

But somewhere along the way, the demons got into his veins. Seventeen years ago, while an executive with the Baltimore Urban League, he overdosed on heroin and passed out in his office.

He remembers the incident vividly: On that day Anderson was supposed to pick up his 9-year-old daughter from school, but he never made it.

And after that he became - his words, not mine - "a stealing, robbing, manipulating, lying, pawning dope fiend predator."

One of thousands of "dope fiend predators" in the Baltimore of the 1980s and 1990s.

Jerome Anderson was "in the life" all those years. He robbed homes in upscale neighborhoods. He lifted merchandise out of hardware superstores and UPS trucks. He sweet-talked church people and women for money. He slept in abandoned houses. His wife used to let him come home now and then, to take a bath or get something good to eat, but she'd frisk him for stolen goods before he left their house.

Eventually, they had to give up the house.

Anderson, of course, didn't care. By then, he was a hardcore heroin addict, his waking thought each day about stealing, robbing or cheating to get money for a fix.

Of course, if you had never met him before Friday's graduation of the latest class of recovering addicts to go through the Baltimore Circuit Drug Treatment Court, you never would have believed any of this.

Anderson, tall and trim, was dressed in brown shoes, black slacks, a brown sweater with a shawl collar, blue shirt and necktie, and a black topcoat. His beard was gray and he wore eyeglasses. Had I been passing time in the courtroom as I often do - guessing occupations of various jurors or other spectators - I'd have made Jerome Anderson for a college professor or high school teacher.

It was hard to imagine him breaking into houses in Guilford or sleeping in "abandominiums" along Carey Street.

All for heroin.

"People used to offer me help," Anderson said Friday, after he and 46 others made their final passage through Drug Treatment Court. "But - and this is very hard to explain - what happens inside your head is, you don't even see the possibility. People are talking to you about changing your life, and you can't even hear them. That's the kind of hopelessness that comes with heroin addiction. That kind of hopelessness is horrible.

"Reality is secondary to getting that fix. You can't even see it. Reality is optional for the addictive personality."

Anderson used to get arrested and sent to jail. Then he'd come out of jail and go back to the old ways. He was a nonviolent offender who, once in court, could speak well enough to convince judges he deserved a break. So nothing ever changed. Anderson was going to live and die on the street.

Then one day, after being arrested yet again, Anderson ended up in drug court. He's lucky.

At both the district and circuit court levels, the mission of drug court is simple - get treatment, instead of incarceration, for the nonviolent offender. This special court, which has proven its effectiveness in various tracking studies, is in its 10th year. But Baltimore would have been a lot better off today had drug court been established 30 years ago.

It might be the smartest program in government.

The answer to addiction has never been incarceration, but only in the last decade - more specifically, the last three years - has the city had the resources to adequately treat the thousands of addicts who live here. And there are thousands more in the suburbs who visit the city to get their drugs.

"Before drug court, I had no desire to change," says Anderson, who was good at impressing judges over the years and "worming my way'" out of jail.

But a year ago, faced with more time for various drug-related offenses, Anderson had no option but to try the treatment offered by drug court.

"A sea change has got to take place in [the addict] for this to work," he says, giving sizable credit to probation agents who refused to go easy on him. "And then when it happens, when you make that decision to change, everything falls into place. People can see it. They can see it in your eyes. They can see that a light has gone on. They see you making steps. You make little steps at a time. The teeny stuff - like this [diploma] - becomes something real. You can stand on it, and it becomes part of your new reality."

Anderson has stayed clean for a year. He has returned to live with his wife and daughter, now 26 and a parent herself. He wants desperately to be employed again and keeps going to job interviews. In the meantime, he volunteers as a counselor at three Baltimore nonprofits, assigned to work with recovering addicts in transition to the mainstream.

"I'm just one step ahead of a lot of the people I work with," he says.

Anderson asked me if I had seen a movie, A Beautiful Mind, based on the struggles of mathematical genius - and eventual Nobel Prize winner - John Nash to overcome schizophrenia.

I said I had seen the movie, and found it interesting that Anderson, who had been to the depths of depravity like Nash, would mention it.

"Remember what happened to his demons," Anderson says. "He never really got rid of them, did he? My demons used to frighten me and drive me to do dope. Now, I drag them along with me. I go to job interviews, and I might be afraid, I might be confused, my demons might be with me, but I just keep going. I drag them along. I don't let them bring me down. And that's the difference between one who makes it and one who doesn't."

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