Baltimore: The Heroin Capital of the U.S.

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Baltimore: The Heroin Capital of the U.S.

By Julia Beatty 03/30/15

The gritty city that was the real star of The Wire is now being plagued anew.

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As the largest independent city in America, Baltimore, Maryland, has a lot of peculiarities and a lot of history. From the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812 that prompted Francis Scott Key to write the National Anthem, to the odd way in which the locals pronounce the “O” (“Owe say can you see…”) Baltimore has always been an engaging city. Edgar Allan Poe rests peacefully there as his woeful poetry lingers on, but the current state of Poe’s beloved Baltimore would disturb even him.

One of the reasons for an increase of overdoses in Baltimore is that the drugs are of a much purer quality than the national average, according to the DEA.

Though once nicknamed “Charm City” for the artsy and vibrant culture, Baltimore’s eclectic neighborhoods are now peppered with vacant and burned-out houses. Gritty portrayals of the city, like in HBO’s The Wire are all-too-accurate as they depict drive-by shootings and gangs running the neighborhoods. No one is refuting Baltimore’s dangerous reputation. “Bodymore, Murdaland” had the fifth highest murder rate in the nation as of last year, but it is now being plagued by a very different epidemic: heroin.

With an estimated 60,000 addicts among its streets, the city of Baltimore is being consumed by a devastating drug known for destroying the lives of its users, and those left to pick up the pieces. This number suggests that one in 10 Baltimore residents are addicted to heroin, a statistic that reflects Americans’ overwhelming shift from prescription drugs to the cheaper alternative. 

While some remember the '90s as being "heroin chic," this drug was then considered much too unorthodox for some, and too impractical for others. Instead, opiates like OxyContin and Percocet were an especially popular choice for people in rural areas of the United States to get high. Known as “hillbilly heroin,” these pills were easy to acquire, and prices were fairly manageable for working class Americans who suffered from addiction problems. Today, however, these pills typically sell within the $50-60 range and many users, unable to afford the surge in prices, turn to heroin. 

As prescription drug addiction continues to rise in America, where patients are routinely overprescribed narcotics, opiate dependency has led many to try heroin and even adopt it as their drug of choice. Buying a $20 bag of “dope” (sometimes of a relatively pure consistency) makes a lot more sense to drug users who often spend three times as much per pill. 

And with the number of both heroin consumers and dealers growing every year, lower income neighborhoods, like many found in Baltimore, are particularly vulnerable to high drug activity. The city’s overall poverty rate is just above 25%, leading a large amount of its citizens to enter the heroin business and cash in on this new trend.

By sitting firmly in the middle of the East Coast, the geography of Maryland itself makes the state an easy target—a quick stop for drug dealers shipping their product up and down the coast. Most of Baltimore’s heroin enters the city this way, but the famous Port of Baltimore serves as a particularly convenient pathway for international drug smuggling. 

The Port of Baltimore was established in 1706 as a port of entry for the tobacco trade with England. It was originally designed to accommodate the largest of shipping vessels, but today these are often stuffed with massive loads of illegal narcotics. For instance, in 2013, custom agents seized 128 pounds of cocaine that was shipped to the Baltimore port from Panama and China. 

Fresh off the boat, these drugs are funneled right onto city streets by the thousands of dealers eager to make a profit, and the city’s war on heroin rages on.

As Baltimore’s addict population continues to grow, the media has taken notice.

The National Geographic documentary series Drugs Inc. recently aired an episode entitled, “The High Wire” that highlights Baltimore’s heroin problem. Showing junkies shooting up on the streets in broad daylight and drug dealers peddling at Lexington Market just a few feet from police, this show emphasizes the fact that a greater police presence does not seem to offer much of a solution.

Some, however, say that the National Geographic program sensationalizes the issue and does not accurately reflect Baltimore’s problems with drugs. In a Baltimore Sun article, David Zurawik disagrees with the number “60,000” saying: 

“Second, the 60,000 number has never come close to being confirmed. The Sun tried to do so twice—in 2005 and, again, in July—and concluded that 'it likely emerged from a blend of best guesses and misunderstandings' dating back to at least 1986.”

However, a report by the Drug Enforcement Agency in the year 2000 stated that Baltimore had the highest per capita rate for heroin use in the entire country, and 15 years later, this still rings true. 

With statewide overdose deaths attributed to heroin increasing by 88%, Governor Larry Hogan labeled it a “State of Emergency” in response, saying:

“Every state on the East Coast has declared a state of emergency except Maryland — and Maryland has the worst problem,” Hogan said. 

To date, Maryland has not yet declared a “State of Emergency” and it is not clear why. Massachusetts and New Jersey have already done so, with Governor Christie organizing a special task force to address the problem. 

In the meantime, Hogan’s speech has drawn a lot of public attention to the issue, and the state has followed Christie’s lead on assembling a special task force, to be led by Maryland Lieutenant Governor Boyd Rutherford. Additionally, recent efforts to prevent heroin distribution in Maryland include joining a six-state coalition to target a supply line of the drug along the East Coast, as New York and New Jersey provide nearly a quarter of the heroin found in Baltimore. 

Many of the proposed solutions, including attempts to arrest more dealers, center around the idea of prevention. Lately, however, the bigger concern is the shocking number of overdose deaths in Maryland, and Baltimore, in particular. In 2013 alone, the city experienced over 300 fatal heroin overdoses, and an even higher number of emergency room visits. 

One of the reasons for an increase of overdoses in Baltimore is that the drugs, most commonly originating from South America, are of a much purer quality than the national average, according to the DEA. Buyers consider themselves lucky to be given “raw” clean dope and reputable dealers make a point to cut the drugs with very little else, if at all. 

Some dealers, however, maximize their profits by cutting the powder with substances like Fentanyl—a synthetic opiate that is approximately 15 times more potent than heroin. Users have no way of knowing what they are snorting, smoking or shooting into their arms, and many suffer the fatal consequences.

Thankfully, though, Maryland police have recently been required to carry the lifesaving medication, naloxone—a drug that can reverse the effects of an overdose. Quincy, Massachusetts was the first place in the United States to carry naloxone and it reportedly saved 230 lives in just four years. 

Yet, even with the newly implemented law requiring this tool, many addicts fear being arrested more than the idea of death itself and are therefore reluctant to call for help. Although ingesting a substance is not necessarily cause for arrest, many know from personal experience that anything resembling heroin paraphernalia or drug residue means serious trouble in the eyes of the law. The much debated War on Drugs is not inspiring people to seek help for their addictions or even save their own lives as America has been conditioned to view addicts as criminals first and disease sufferers second.

One medicine that is far more commonly given to heroin users is the controversial drug methadone, and some clinics in Baltimore hand it out to scores of addicts amidst their personal horrors of withdrawal. As opiate-addicted patients eagerly wait for their medicine, their dependence on heroin lessens as their dependence on methadone increases. While the severity of addiction prevents a lot of these recipients from ever weaning off of opiates entirely, methadone has proven extremely beneficial, just in terms of harm reduction. Addicts that were previously nodding out at work and subsequently fired can suddenly find themselves able to live something resembling a normal life. Suburban women, now considered the "new face of heroin," can come one step closer to overcoming their addiction, and stop having to smuggle Baltimore street drugs in their minivans.

Other substitutions for heroin like Suboxone, the orange strips that dissolve synthetic opiates into your bloodstream, are also considered beneficial in treating heroin addiction. Baltimore physicians are prescribing more Suboxone than ever before, and many drug abuse clinics report on the success that this treatment can provide for struggling patients. Still, a large percentage of people are unable to ever quit these alternative drugs, and clinics administering them are routinely questioned—often leaving these facilities short on necessary funding.

Aside from the chemical dependency aspect of addiction, researchers are also focusing on improving mental health care for addicts. Treatment centers like Baltimore’s Glass Health Programs describe therapy as an essential tool for recovery, in addition to offering medication assistance. 

Whereas Maryland was once able to rely on organizations like AA and NA to provide recovering addicts with this type of service, the state’s current crisis reflects the growing need for more mental health centers focusing on substance abuse and recovery. Although Maryland’s task force plans to address the problem as a state-wide concern, Baltimore still remains the biggest obstacle in fighting Maryland’s heroin epidemic. As public opinion remains divided on how to aid the heroin capital of the United States, many are left wondering: what more can be done?

Julia Beatty is a student and freelance writer in NYC. You can follow her on Twitter @juliabeatty1.

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Julia Beatty is a college student from Maryland. You can follow her on Twitter.

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