Just so you know, before I take you into the thorny stuff: I've heard from dozens of people - city and suburban families of longtime drug addicts - who say things are better now. Their sons, husbands, brothers, daughters, wives, girlfriends, sisters are clean, staying out of trouble and away from their old junkie friends, working and taking care of their children. There are a lot of stories like that.
Between 23,000 and 25,000 men and women received publicly funded treatment in this heroin-infested city in each of the last three years. On Friday, in a large courtroom on Calvert Street, there will be a ceremony to acknowledge and praise 36 recovering addicts graduating from Drug Treatment Court. There are people all over Baltimore who are no longer the drains on the community they were just a year or two ago; they go to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, or take their methadone, get to work, and generally carry on like responsible adults after years of drug addiction and incarceration.
Lasting success in recovery from heroin and cocaine takes not only intensive therapy, but an awesome spirit to fight off the old demons. After listening to so many stories this year, I give thanks that this poison has never infested my family, that I never had a child or sibling who disappeared for long periods, or who lived in abandoned houses, or who went to jail for three or four years at a time, or who ended up dead on a sidewalk at 2 a.m.
And I never fully appreciated the exhausting frustration of the caseworkers, parole and probation agents, judges, therapists and supportive family members who are fellow travelers as addicts and addict-dealers go through the thorns of recovery and relapse.
They are among the hardest to help.
Two of the one-time drug dealers who contacted me for help with jobs last summer succeeded in finding them. But they both relapsed, one of them just a day before he was due to be released from home detention. He's back in jail. The other is now in a program for the treatment he should have had before taking a job.
Two weeks ago, I gave Sandy Ellis, of Ellicott City, some information about a job-placement program that might help her son, a heroin addict who has been arrested three times in the last two years. She was hoping he'd be released from jail and start looking for a job.
Instead, a judge last week sent him back to prison for three years because he violated the conditions of his probation by - what else? - using drugs again.
This is quite common. In Maryland, according to a September report from the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, when those caught up in the drug life violate their probations - and they often do - by relapsing or committing other crimes, their jail time gets up to a third longer than it would have been had they been punished for the original offense. Little wonder the prisons remain full.
"Things had started to turn around for [my son]," Ellis wrote in an e-mail the other day. "He sounded different, a good kind of different. He took responsibility for his actions, apologized to members of his family that he had turned his back on ... and began sharing his new-found faith with others. My sister has a plumbing company and she and her husband were going to put him to work as soon as he got out. ... But, the judge was furious that he didn't do what was required for his probation."
"He's a little down, but he takes responsibility for his actions. We had just all hoped that we could have him home for Christmas. Our family had been torn apart the past two years because of his actions, but we're on the road to being a family again. ... I guess I don't understand what good will come of keeping him in prison for three years."
If he doesn't get drug treatment, not much.
But even then, of course, there are no guarantees, men and women being the complex and confounding animals that we are. That's why all of this - defining and delivering the special kind of help that thousands of addicts in Maryland need, shaping the courts and prisons to deal effectively with the addicted population, providing ex-offenders with a lift back to the mainstream - is so hard.
Eric Smith couldn't get out of the thorns, though for a time he seemed to be on his way. Released from prison in June, he had enrolled in Project Bridge, a collaboration of four nonprofits aimed at helping ex-offenders find jobs.
Smith found transitional work in a government office building and in a Goodwill retail store. The store manager recommended him for a full-time job. But apparently by then he had started using drugs again.
Just before 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 30, in the 1600 block of Presbury St. in West Baltimore, Smith was shot to death as he sat in a Nissan Sentra. Police have no motive, no suspects.
Here was a man who had been arrested nine times, starting at 13. He had accepted the dangers and consequences of the drug life. But, with Project Bridge, he seemed to see the light through the thorns, at least for a time.
"Eric ... embraced the opportunity for a different life," wrote Karen Pearson, Project Bridge director, in a memo to staff. "Unfortunately, he also demonstrated that the transition away from negative influences to success in the mainstream is difficult. But these are the realities that come with working with the hardest to serve."