A Bleak Narrative Behind the Title “Heroin Capital”

[Originally published by Welcome to Baltimore, Hon

Baltimore, MD–When NBC news announced last year that heroin use was on the rise nationally, it may have surprised those who considered the drug a relic of the Beatnik era. But it didn’t surprise residents in Baltimore, where struggles with it have earned the city, amongst other unflattering nicknames, that of the nation’s “heroin capital.”

This title was validated in 2000 by the Drug Enforcement Agency, when it determined that Baltimore had the highest per capita rates for heroin use in America. And it was updated by a 2009 report claiming that addicts in the city numbered roughly 60,000—or a staggering 10% of residents.

To those familiar with Baltimore, this just validated statistically what’s long been observable. According to Van Smith, a journalist for City Paper, Baltimore’s heroin use dates to the 1600’s, when it was imported from middle and southeastern Asia. Like in other cities, the trade continued here with immigration and industrial growth, before being prohibited in the 1920s. But this led to a black market that thrived in music clubs, and by the 1950s heroin had become a citywide epidemic.

It escalated the next two decades because of certain gangsters who pioneered innovative ways to expand the trade. One was Melvin Williams, a former kingpin who claims to have made several million on heroin, but has since segued in and out of recuperation, even appearing in The Wire. Another was Maurice “Peanut” King, who in the late 1970s recruited teenagers as his runners. He not only bought these teenagers sneakers and jewelry, but mopeds that enabled them to escape from the police down Baltimore’s narrow alleyways. He also opened nightclubs and food markets for redistribution, and soon was generating over $10 million annually.

Although now in prison, “Nutt’s” impact is still felt on Baltimore’s streets, since he introduced the sale and consumption of heroin to a younger market. Today the drug is strongest on the east side, where he mostly operated, and in the northwest, where Pennsylvania Avenue is a notoriously intensive corridor. Even more, its use has become in the last couple decades a suburban trend, fueled by teenagers who snort rather than shoot.

Some of the many abandoned buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue.
Some of the many abandoned buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Though the illegal market that delivers [heroin] to users is largely a street phenomenon in Baltimore,” said Smith. “White, middle-class users,” that come into the city to buy “are probably every bit as typical as poor, black users.”

But heroin’s endurance in Baltimore also has to do with innate factors of the drug itself. It is now replacing other opiates as a cheaper and more potent painkiller, and its distribution points have extended from traditional Asian countries, to Mexico, Ghana, and parts of the U.S. Thus as a port city, Baltimore is as equipped to receive heroin as it is anything else.

There may also be an ingrained interest in preserving heroin as a catalyst in Baltimore’s “informal economy,” which produces an estimated $900 million annually, comparable to hotels and restaurants. Because this sector is focused, moreover, in neighborhoods without many jobs, it adds to the allure of “slinging.” And while affected neighborhoods certainly don’t like the violence, they find this money hard to reject, since it’s been known to fund everything from churches to charities to sports leagues, through the generosity of dealers seeking community support. Another reason for the drug’s endurance, says the executive of the crime management program HIDTA, is because of Baltimore’s insular nature. As an “old ‘heroin town’,” the drug is passed down through the generations the same way pot is in northern California, or PBR in Milwaukee, and is “accepted by all too many people down there as something that’s normal,” or “a rite of passage.”

This generates, because of heroin’s potency, predictable outcomes. It has contributed not only to Baltimore’s high murder rate, but its rampant street fights and muggings, and to the multitudes of “zombies” found publicly suffering withdrawal. The drug has also, like cocaine in 1980s Miami, come to define the very culture of the city, as much as the Baltimore Ravens, or crabs doused in Old Bay seasoning. It is used by a customer base that “cuts across class, racial, and geographical lines”, says Smith, and has been sold by everyone from rogue cops to a city hall hot dog vendor. And while its influence has supposedly waned these last three years because of preventative measures, Smith remains skeptical, claiming heroin is still heavily available here, and impossible to police. Of course for many users, it’s also impossible to kick, even as it accelerates personal decline, and the ongoing decline of a city.