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Prioritize drug treatment; it saves lives and reduces crime | COMMENTARY

A group of volunteers cleaning up West Baltimore help revive one of two men who had apparently overdosed on the same block they were working on.
A group of volunteers cleaning up West Baltimore help revive one of two men who had apparently overdosed on the same block they were working on. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

We were reminded this week that not even a pandemic can stop two persistent issues that continue to plague Baltimore: violent crime and drug use. First were the homicide statistics that show the city is dangerously close to outpacing the number of people killed last year. Then came word that in 2020 the state reported the highest number of drug overdoses ever, with most of the lives lost in Baltimore.

These were the topics of two separate stories that ran in The Sun on different days. But really, both issues should be looked at together — drug use begets crime. This is not blaming the victim; we understand drug addiction is a serious public health issue. But to address it, we must get people into treatment to both save lives and also stop the demand for drugs that fuels crime in Baltimore, and plenty of other cities, as well.

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Overdoses killed 2,773 people in Maryland last year — 394 more than in 2019, and 376 more than the previous record set in 2018, when 2,406 people died from overdoses, according to report released Tuesday by Maryland’s Opioid Operational Command Center. Most of the overdoses involved opioids, with Baltimore experiencing the most opioid-related deaths at 954, which was 12.1% more than 2019. People are also losing their lives to gun violence, with 86 people killed in Baltimore as of Wednesday afternoon, and officials frequently blaming the illegal drug industry for the violence. We can’t ignore the connection.

The pandemic has compounded the opioid problem around the country by creating conditions conducive to more overdoses, including social isolation that would trigger mental health breaks and less access to treatment because of social distancing and shutdowns to prevent COVID-19 spread. People are likely turning to drugs in times of distress at the same time public health resources have been focused on the pandemic, which has killed more than a half a million people across the country.

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That demand has stirred up trouble in many communities. There are the petty crimes, like theft to pay for drugs; then there are the deadly crimes. In Baltimore, violent robberies and homicides are often related to the drug trade, Baltimore Police Chief Michael Harrison said. A drug sale turns into a robbery, and either the buyer or the seller ends up with a life-ending bullet to the chest. Young men who make a living off the drug game resolve their conflicts with a gun, rather than a discussion. Retaliatory killings over turf are too common. Helping to feed this all is the demand for marijuana, heroin and other drugs. But, if the demand isn’t there, there is no money to be made and the operation will shut down — just like any other business.

“Programs that help people get off of drugs and help reduce the demand for drugs is a direct correlation for reducing crime,” Chief Harrison said.

The General Assembly missed one opportunity this legislative session to push people toward treatment when it failed to pass a bill to create safe consumption sites, or overdose preventions sites. The sites offer a place for people to take drugs with medical staff in the building who can give immediate care if something goes wrong. The goal is also to help connect people to treatment when they are ready. Lawmakers must take this idea up again next year.

The American Medical Association has also pegged Maryland as one of 41 states that needs to do more to address opioid-related deaths, such as removing quantity restrictions on opioid prescriptions and implementing more harm reduction tactics, such as offering clean needle exchange programs, something that exists in Baltimore but not everywhere in the state.

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In the meantime, as the country begins to come out of the pandemic, more attention must be devoted to the opioid crisis once more. The overdose deaths show what happens when we don’t give this crisis its due. That doesn’t mean crime fighting tactics, like getting illegal guns off the streets, aren’t just as important. But law enforcement strategies don’t help people stop using drugs. Only treatment and education, that includes exploring the root causes that trigger a person’s drug use, will help people become clean, and, in turn, lower crime of all kinds.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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