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Did someone put this Baltimore drug corner on Google Maps? | COMMENTARY

A Google Maps icon marking "Payback Pharmacy" in southwest Baltimore appears to designate a busy open-air drug corner in the Mount Clare neighborhood.
A Google Maps icon marking "Payback Pharmacy" in southwest Baltimore appears to designate a busy open-air drug corner in the Mount Clare neighborhood.(Dan Rodricks / Baltimore Sun)

If you searched “Payback Pharmacy” on Google Maps before today, a red map pin appeared at the corner of South Gilmor and McHenry streets in the Mount Clare neighborhood of southwest Baltimore. The mortar-and-pestle icon, an international symbol for pharmacy, marked “Payback” on the map.

The pin appeared along with those of nearby businesses and landmarks.

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Except there was no pharmacy at Gilmor and McHenry — no place to get a prescription filled or buy cough syrup.

However, if you happen to be looking to buy heroin, as thousands of adults in Maryland are every day, the corner marked “Payback Pharmacy” might have what you need.

It’s an open-air drug market, people familiar with the neighborhood say, and heroin is the top seller. Buyers of the drug come steadily to the corner, some on foot, some in cars and some of those from out of state.

Allow me to suggest the possibility that an entrepreneurial person managed to get a drug corner on Google Maps, and did so as a convenience to prospective buyers unfamiliar with Baltimore. Customers could simply search “Payback Pharmacy,” find the corner and have the directions sent to their cell phones.

There does not appear to be any other immediate explanation for a Payback Pharmacy designation on Google Maps. And now, there is no longer a designation. Google appears to have removed the pin after this column first appeared. It’s too bad the internet giant can’t also make the drugs disappear.

“What is taking place now is unprecedented,” a man who has lived in southwest Baltimore for several years told me. “The drug trafficking has gone from two or three dealers to more than 10 dealers with hundreds of addicts shopping [on the corner] from sunup to sundown.”

Four people familiar with the area say it’s a hot corner. Deals take place near a bus stop on Gilmor Street, some on lots behind two vacant rowhouses that are owned by the city, and some on nearby Vincent and Bruce streets.

The people I spoke with did not want to be identified by name. But they documented a year of steady heroin traffic and expressed frustration that more has not been done by Baltimore police to put the corner out of business.

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Mount Clare is one of the seven neighborhoods in the Southwest Partnership, formed in 2012 to be a force in home ownership and economic development. The partnership is in the process of buying and rehabilitating several vacant houses, some of them on Gilmor and McHenry, and those projects might push the dealers out.

In the meantime, they have a big presence there.

“I especially feel for the vulnerable in the community,” one of the residents said. “The families with children who can’t safely walk home from school and the elderly homeowners who have no way to get out of here.”

This brings us to a gnarly place where a neighborhood’s need for civility and safety conflicts with the need for a different approach to crime than the one that led our country to a world-leading rate of incarceration.

I’ve said it here before: We sent too many people with drug addictions into prisons when they should have been going to hospitals. A lot of people now agree that incarceration is not the answer for those who use drugs and often sell them to maintain their habits.

And yet, if there’s little or no consequence to that, if the police make arrests only to see the courts release dealers and users back to the corners, how does that help people in places like Mount Clare?

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Pardon me for racing ahead to the big picture.

While I never heard of a drug corner getting a name and a place on Google Maps, I am quite familiar with neighborhoods diminished by open-air drug dealing; with zero-tolerance policing, police crackdowns and large federal drug busts; with mandatory minimum sentencing, mass incarceration and the challenges of re-entry for ex-offenders.

And then, of course, there was the great awakening, the recognition that we took the wrong approach.

And that’s because, through all this, one thing remained constant: The demand for drugs. In fact, it got worse and spread to areas and populations that previously had not been associated with opioid abuse.

At the corner of Gilmor and McHenry, I see two Baltimore police cruisers parked side-by-side, the officers in each having a conversation through the windows. There are no dealers or customers in sight. But as soon as the officers drive away, within three or four minutes, there are four, now five guys on the corner.

“This is how it has been all day, every day, seven days a week, since last March,” a person familiar with the corner tells me.

It has always been thus. Clear the corners. Cut off the supply. But one market closes, another opens. The demand remains.

I’ve thought about this a lot. Our main approach must be from the demand side, and in a big way.

Decriminalize the possession of heroin and cocaine. Invest billions of dollars in a sweeping, public health approach. Fully fund treatment-on-demand and follow-up care. We could get millions of Americans into treatment. Get them clean and they will no longer buy and sell heroin on the corners.

In Portugal, this approach has worked, with illegal drug use falling steadily since 2001 and thousands of adults in treatment. A lot of other problems associated with addiction went away, too.

In this country, there is growing consensus that the war on drugs was a failure. But we need to go beyond that because the demand for drugs remains and the demand still destroys lives and ruins neighborhoods.

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