As I sat in my office I realized that it was close to noon. The sun was shining brightly on Charles Street, and I could see the Washington Monument off in the distance — that iconic landmark that reminds you every so often that we're living in one of the oldest cities in America. Like thousands of others in the downtown area, lunch was on my mind, and Lexington Market was the day's choice. The short five-minute ride to Eutaw Street was easy; I glided into an open parking space. As I exited my car and began walking toward the entrance to the market I was reminded of one sad reality: The heroin business in Baltimore is still in full effect.

"Dimes bags of boy, dime bags of boy," was the subtle chant I continuously heard. It was a pronouncement from the area heroin dealers that for just $10, I was in the right place to purchase a bag of "boy" (heroin). The hustle and bustle in broad daylight by drug dealers was just as aggressive as the vendor at Buttercup Bakery selling sweet potato pies. But the only purchase I was in the mood for was a corned beef sandwich from Barron's Deli or a warm lump crab cake from Faidley's Seafood.

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The heroin trade in Baltimore has flourished for decades. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency states that Baltimore has the highest per capita heroin addiction rate in the country. It's also been reported that there were 303 overdose deaths in Baltimore during 2014. I still remember the first time I sold a bag of "boy" in West Baltimore. I was just a 17-year-old kid living in poverty, but with dreams of being rich someday. I had very little direction and lots of bad energy. The product I sold was raw and uncut, and it had the impact of a nuclear bomb. I was mesmerized by the power of the narcotics business and its profits. The reaction of the addict who injected the deadly mix was remarkable to this young teenage kid, then things got scary fast. The guy who purchased my first package overdosed, and suddenly he was out cold laying on the floor unconscious. His body was seized by the strength of the illegal opiate. Fortunately, several others came to his rescue and revived the poor man who could have died; lucky for him — and lucky for me.

My original scheme in those days was to make just enough money to buy a fresh pair of Air Jordans which seemed worth risking life and limb for. If you owned a pair of Jordans, you were somebody even if you felt like you were nobody. Those of us spiraling in the cycle of poverty craved expensive shiny symbols to feel important; it was the psychological boost that freed the soul. Eventually I hated the dysfunction of the hustle and all the pain the game had to offer. But for years I felt trapped with nowhere to flee and nowhere to hide.

In 2015, I became a member of the Mayor's Heroin Treatment and Prevention Task Force. As members of the task force, our primary mission was to address the critical problem of opioid addiction in Baltimore. Along with many dedicated professionals in the field of health care and addiction, we worked tirelessly to create a comprehensive plan to address Baltimore's heroin epidemic.

At this point it's not just a matter of will by our policy makers; it's a matter of courage. Expanding access to treatment so that more heroin addicts can get the help they need has to be our priority. But drug prevention education has to also become a priority for Baltimore. We must make sure our children have the information they need to make positive choices when it comes to drug use — and drug dealing.

The "heroin disaster" we have in our city goes back years and decades, but we don't have decades to respond to it. I should know; I was once part of the problem.

Kevin Shird is author of the memoir "Lessons of Redemption" and a youth advocate. His email is kevin.shird@yahoo.com.

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