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Political Animal

Simon Says

By Brian Morton | Posted 11/27/2002

David Simon and I share a number of similarities.

We both attended the University of Maryland, wrote at the newspaper there, and now support the paper in its efforts at stopping the journalism school's Machiavellian efforts to subvert independent student journalism there.

We both live in Baltimore, him for over 20 years, me for about 12.

And we both know a little about the drug trade here from looking at it firsthand: he as a police reporter for The Sun, I as a former local radio reporter, a resident of a neighborhood three blocks from "the Corner," and as a spokesman for the nation's drug czar for two and a half years. I've traveled the country, spoken to addicts in treatment centers from Iowa to Los Angeles, seen the drugs and where they come from in Mexico, in Jamaica, in Bolivia. And in 1997, I had to subdue a junkie who broke into my house while I was home with a herniated disc in my back, and ended up overnight in Johns Hopkins with a Keith Richards-sized dose of morphine in me for my trouble. I still find needles and vials behind my house regularly.

I don't agree with every policy this government has made on drugs. I don't believe we can arrest and incarcerate our way out of the problem. I think an entire generation of black men are in jail because of stupid things like the sentencing discrepancies between crack and powdered cocaine, where an anesthesiologist and his snow-bunny girlfriend in Vail, Colo., can get off light for six grams of powder, but the same amount of crack on a street dealer brings in the feds and hard time.

At the same time, I know that decriminalizing drugs, legalizing them, and making the government the dealer isn't the answer. We don't solve the problem of addiction by making drugs legal and then turning the government into the pusher (ignoring lotteries, Keno, and slots for the moment).

I also think that calling the drug problem a "war" is the stupidest idea that's come down the pike in a long time--right after making a nondrinking, nondancing Pentecostal hypermoralist our attorney general. I worked for a four-star general who never liked or condoned the term "drug war" because he knew what real war was about.

But I also know that you can't extrapolate the nation's drug problem from a six-square-block part of Baltimore. America's drug problem exists in the suburbs of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the quiet cocaine parties of Vail, and in the methamphetamine labs of California. In 1997 more than a dozen kids in Plano, Texas, an affluent white suburb of Dallas, died from black tar heroin overdoses. Do we see them portrayed as hopeless criminal losers with character on HBO? Not likely.

America's drug problem is not predominantly poor, predominantly urban, or predominantly black. On HBO, there are no meth-addicted mothers from Nebraska, there are no white suburban stoners from the San Fernando Valley, there are no coke-sniffing plastic surgeons inches away from losing their licenses in treatment programs at Sloan-Kettering. They simply don't exist. This is partly because society has built a gigantic support mechanism for them, and it is harder to see them fall.

If you are a M.D. addicted to cocaine and painkillers, you likely have a health plan at work that will cover it. You've got a job that pays a six-figure income as incentive not to wreck your life and you've got a whole bunch of money to burn through before you hit bottom. It could take you 10 years before you lose your job, wife, kids, house, and/or life or end up in a halfway house somewhere. Given all the factors working against you, odds are it'll never happen.

If you are a clerk in a convenience store making 40 cents an hour above the minimum wage, you are probably living paycheck-to-paycheck, have no savings to speak of, and rent a place to live. An addiction will drop you right out of society and into the criminal-justice system in less than a year. The fall is shorter, but the landing is hard.

Here in Baltimore, we've become the national poster child for the crackhead and the junkie, thanks to the Simon-spawned series The Wire, The Corner, and Homicide. And when our lawmakers try to promote a little local civic boosting, they get shut down by a threat to move The Wire's whole filming operation to another city, where Simon can continue to run Baltimore down. After all, as our esteemed former governor Spiro Agnew once said, "You've seen one slum, you've seen 'em all."

I'll never work for Simon, although I'm sure I have friends who do--set dressers, construction people, a few actors. I don't want them to be out of work. But I have to wonder about us as a town where we'll take the cash for something like this.

In an episode of Sex and the City, Sarah Jessica Parker's character meets a charming Louisiana sailor who's visiting New York for the first time. He is less than impressed and tells her so. She sends him packing, telling the audience at the end that the city is her first love, and "nobody talks shit about my boyfriend."

We sure aren't New York. We aren't the glamorous socialite--we're the cheap hooker. We get crapped on by our boyfriend, and then go crawling back to get paid for it.

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