Jeff Thompson of HEBCAC: “There Just Is an Amazing Amount of Resilience” in East Baltimore

Read the follow-up to this story here.

I was trying to nail down the scope of what the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition (HEBCAC) does when I asked Deputy Directory Jeff Thompson if he saw the organization primarily as filling people’s needs or acting as an agent of change.

He didn’t think much of my distinction.

“We are agents of change,” he told me, “because we help people transform their lives.”

That is to say, helping East Baltimore residents beat addiction, secure housing and find work does fill needs. But it does much more that. It enables people to unlock their potential and become assets in their community.

HEBCAC was originally conceived in the 1990s as an umbrella group, encompassing 11 East Baltimore neighborhoods (and their neighborhood associations) stretching from the Hopkins East Baltimore campus to the borders of Baltimore Cemetery.


As funding sources and the city’s development priorities have changed over the years, HEBCAC’s role in the community has evolved. Relationships with local associations have become less formal, and the organization now focuses on providing social services and community development within its service area.

Continue reading

Legalizing Drugs: Follow-Up with Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition

Last week I got a chance to speak with Tricia Christensen, the Legislative Advocacy Coordinator at Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition (BHRC), regarding my series on drug enforcement.

Some background: BHRC was formed by Baltimore-area students beginning in 2011 to educate the public about harm reduction, primarily through seminars and film screenings. So, for example, while we celebrate Billie Holiday with murals all over Baltimore,  BHRC tells people the story of how she was targeted and terrorized by Henry Anslinger’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics (which I didn’t get into in the series but have written about elsewhere), and what people can do to limit the harm that comes to stigmatized populations.

Today the organization has about 30 volunteers to supplement its small staff, and has expanded into areas beyond education. BHRC’s advocacy played a major role in the passage of Maryland’s “Good Samaritan” laws, which allow people to assist in emergency overdose situations without fearing prosecution for possession of drugs or paraphernalia, or for providing alcohol to minors.

BHRC was also the first non-governmental organization in Maryland to provide training to bystanders in overdose education and naloxone distribution (OEND). As Tricia says, users and the people close to them are the real first responders. And they are sometimes the difference between life and death before a professional arrives on the scene.

(Disclosure: Hearing Tricia say “naloxone” on the phone made me realize 1) I’m not sure if I had ever heard it said out loud before, and 2) I had spelled it wrong multiple times in my series. I’ve corrected it now.)

Regarding the connection between drug prohibition and violence, Tricia agrees that when dealers have no access to law enforcement, violence is their only (or easiest) recourse to resolve disputes. She pointed to a quote by then-Mayor Pugh I referenced in Part 2:

Continue reading

Legalizing Drugs: The Bunny Colvin Solution to Violence in Baltimore – Part 4

This is the fourth and final part of a series. Go to Part 1, Part 2 or Part 3.

“Wars end.”

Those are the words of Carver in Season 1 of The Wire, explaining why it’s wrong to call the war on drugs – now going on for nearly half a century – a war at all. But, in fact, there are signs that the war being fought on America’s city streets could be nearing an end.

A 2014 Pew Research poll found that two-thirds of Americans support treatment rather than jail time for users of cocaine and heroin. Canada has legalized recreational cannabis use, and the U.S. is trending in that direction.

There’s still backlash any time someone publicly speaks about decriminalization of hard drugs. But overall it seems to be a more sympathetic environment than the one Mayor Kurt Schmoke faced in 1988.

We saw evidence of that with the introduction of a safe injection site bill in the Maryland General Assembly this year.

Continue reading

Legalizing Drugs: The Bunny Colvin Solution to Violence in Baltimore – Part 3

This is the third part of a series. Go to Part 1 or Part 2.

We’ve seen that race has been a driving factor in American drug enforcement throughout its history. And race may be a driving factor in America’s newfound compassion for people with addiction we’ve seen in recent years. Because unlike the crack epidemic of the 1980s, the opioid epidemic – which the president has declared a national emergency, if only formally – has hit white families hard.

Pastor Ed Stetzer, a former proponent of the drug war, confessed that his own evolution on how to combat drug addiction has been motivated by race: “The primary difference between my reaction in the 1980s and now,” he wrote in The Washington Post in 2017, “has to be the difference of the color of the people involved.

Upon coming to this realization, Stetzer says he “needed to repent.”

Many more of us may need to repent – and perhaps do much more than repent – for the harm caused by the war on drugs particularly on communities of color. That harm includes not only unnecessary and unhelpful levels of incarceration. It also includes routine contact with law enforcement, which has been shown to have an adverse affect on people’s health (what the war on drugs was supposed to be protecting).

So as we look at the more “compassionate” approaches to drug addiction, I want to keep an eye on 1) race and 2) violence. Of course I want to know if these approaches are effective in reducing addiction and overdoses. But to whatever extent criminal approaches to combating drug use may cause other kinds of harm, I want to see how the alternatives can reduce or reverse that harm.

Because a compassionate approach to dealing with drug use is not new. It was in 1989, during the peak of the drug war, when a new way of addressing the problem first appeared in America. By 2014, it was in place in more than 3,000 jurisdictions across the country.

For those who like criminalizing drugs but don’t like harsh penalties for nonviolent offenders, drug courts hit just the right balance – or so it would seem.

Continue reading

Legalizing Drugs: The Bunny Colvin Solution to Violence in Baltimore – Part 2

This is the second part of a series. Go to Part 1.

“… the overwhelming bulk of violence is due to gangs fighting for Drug territory. When was the last time you heard about beer and liquor distributors killing each other over territory? Prohibition!”

– Jan Houbolt in the Baltimore City Voters Facebook group

According to The Baltimore Sun, police identified a motive in only 24 of the city’s 309 homicides in 2018. But out of those, half were tied to either drugs or gangs (11 to the former, one to the latter).

Some other 2018 homicide stats that pop out: 219 of the 309 victims (71 percent) had prior drug arrests, and 149 (48 percent) had previously been arrested for violent crimes. Police said about a quarter of murder suspects were members of a drug crew or gang.

Also, 175 victims had been shot in the head. That’s 57 percent, up from 45 percent and 47 percent in the two previous years.

That points to a professionalism in Baltimore’s violence that is also evident in the stubbornly high shooting fatality rate. About one in three reported shootings in Baltimore result in death. That’s one of the highest rates in the country, and it was the subject of a 2015 investigation by The Sun.

City officials certainly seem to think that drug crews are primarily responsible for the murder rate. “You’ve heard about the war on drugs,” Mayor Pugh said in October 2018. “There is a drug war. People are protecting their territories with guns.”

I’m not sure I would have gone with that choice of words if I were the mayor. Because, as the quote at the top of this post shows, some people argue that the war on drugs waged by law enforcement has actually made drug-related violence worse, not better.

And the obvious evidence to point to for that is Prohibition.

Continue reading

Legalizing Drugs: The Bunny Colvin Solution to Violence in Baltimore – Part 1

Baltimore made national headlines in late January when State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that her office would no longer prosecute people for possession of cannabis, regardless of quantity or criminal history.

“When I ask myself: Is the enforcement and prosecution of marijuana possession making us safer as a city?” said Mosby, “the answer is emphatically ‘no.’”

The decision came a month after a report by Baltimore Fishbowl stating that, despite Maryland’s decriminalization law that went into effect in late 2014, cannabis-related arrests in Baltimore were still disproportionately affecting African-Americans. Out of 1,514 such arrests between 2015 and 2017, 1,450 of the arrestees were black. That’s in spite of the fact that white people use drugs at similar rates to other groups.

Still, Mosby has gotten plenty of pushback – notably from Maryland Senate President Mike Miller. “Miss Mosby is wrong,” Miller said. “There are drug dealers in the city who need to be prosecuted and laws need to be unified across the state.”

Of course, Mosby (who by the way is a married woman) made it clear that she would still prosecute people if there were signs that they were dealing cannabis, such as possession of baggies and scales. She just won’t prosecute simple possession.

More recently, State Senator Brian Feldman and Delegate Joseline Peña-Melnyk have introduced legislation (again) in Annapolis to create safe injection sites, where people with addictions could use opioids under supervision to prevent overdoses. The last time such a bill was introduced, the Senate Finance Committee initially passed it but then changed its mind.

But let’s back up a bit. Remember Season 3 of The Wire? When Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin effectively legalizes drugs in designated “free zones” (Hamsterdam) in the Western District? The result, in spite of some serious challenges along the way, is a more orderly, more peaceful district. Dealers don’t fight over territory as much, and police can spend their time doing police work rather than wasting time breaking up open-air drug markets that just pop up somewhere else the next day.

In January 2019, Baltimore had 26 homicides. That’s identical to the figure from 2018, when we had 309 homicides for the year. After a 24-hour period in late February in which 14 people were shot and five were killed, we are very close to last year’s pace. That means, without significant changes, there’s a good chance that we are on our way to a fifth straight year of 300-plus murders.

Is it possible that the solution to – or, I should say, a way to alleviate – Baltimore’s homicide problem is not to just decriminalize cannabis possession, or allow people to use opioids safely, but to legalize drugs Bunny Colvin-style?

Continue reading