'Heroin capital' claim based on an old, bad number

National Geographic asserts Baltimore leads country in heroin addiction

The Sun's David Zurawik talks about the unflattering depiction of Baltimore in National Geographic Channel's 'Drugs, Inc.' on WYPR FM's 'Take on Television.'

What a difference four decades, a bad number, the war on drugs and reality television made: In 1975, National Geographic magazine devoted 27 glossy pages to the hidden charms of Baltimore. In 2014, the National Geographic Channel devotes an hour to the city's degeneracy and proclaims Baltimore "the Heroin Capital of America."

Some Baltimoreans might have saved that old National Geographic, from February 1975, because it provided a great boost to the civic ego. Numerous photographs accompanied Fred Kline's glowing prose.

"An undiscovered city, prejudged by motorists passing its industrial outskirts at 50 miles an hour," Kline wrote. "But now I've been to Baltimore and what surprises greeted me! Having wandered her neighborhoods and met her people, having been touched by the doughty spirit of the city, I know that what I first saw was just a tattered overcoat — only one aspect of a city whose singular character, charm, and yes, even beauty, have made those early impressions fade like a mirage."

And this was five years before Harborplace and the Baltimore Renaissance, when few could imagine the Inner Harbor as tourist attraction. This was before the Baltimore Convention Center, before Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Kline found charm in things now gone (the aroma of McCormick spices along Light Street, Haussner's Restaurant, Hamburger's clothing store) or things that a travel writer probably would leave out today (Charles Center Plaza, the "new-town-in-town" called Coldspring.)

The article was a love letter to the city, and Baltimore could not buy better publicity.

Of course, there was no mention of heroin, though the city certainly had addicts at the time, and fairly famous dealers who sold them the drug.

Kline mentioned "the haunted faces from hell along the Pratt Street skid row," but that was about as close as he got to describing the city's social problems.

That piece might have been Baltimore's first big (nonsports-related) splash in the national press — the start of a long run of positive coverage in newspapers and magazines by travel writers assessing the city as a tourist destination.

When Harborplace opened, Baltimore was seen as a blue-collar town trying to weather postindustrial decline with urban renewal and tourism. A year later, in August 1981, Harborplace's developer, master planner James Rouse, made the cover of Time magazine, proclaiming, "Cities are fun!" And "cities" included Baltimore.

That was then, this now:

Despite all efforts, Baltimore can't shake its reputation as a degenerate, violent Heroin City. A lot of it is absolutely deserved. The history is well known. Heroin usage in Baltimore goes back decades; I've used the term "epoch" to describe it and the violence related to its commerce. We had hellishly homicidal years during and after the crack cocaine epidemic that started in the late 1980s — a parallel universe, the "other Baltimore" to the Baltimore of Harborplace. The war on drugs has been underway for four decades; thousands upon thousands of Baltimoreans have been incarcerated during that time. For years before treatment became more available, we put sick people, men and women addicted to heroin, in prison instead of clinics.

All of that forms the persistently bleak picture of Baltimore.

Doesn't matter that the customer base for heroin is wide: Just as our suburban neighbors come to the city for Ravens games and the tall ships, a good number of them come here to score heroin. But the city still gets the rep for all the addiction.

And there's a number that lingers — a bad number, it turns out: 60,000.

Someone came up with that number years ago to quantify Baltimoreans with some sort of substance abuse problem. It was soon being reported as the number of drug addicts. In a national magazine in 1999, the number was used to support the assertion that one out of 11 Baltimoreans was addicted to either heroin or cocaine. The New York Times reported the addiction rate as one in 10. I've also used this ratio in some of my columns over the years.

But, by about a decade ago, I should have known better.

In 2005, a Baltimore Sun reporter dug deep into data to determine if 60,000 addicts number had any validity, and the result was negative. "The number is almost certainly wrong," The Sun concluded. "It was, at best, a hit-or-miss guess to begin with."

Since then, city health officials have come up with what they believe to be a far better — and much lower — estimate, based on an extrapolation of data collected in a comprehensive federal survey. That estimate is about 11,000 heroin users. A further revision of that estimate is underway.

The truth is probably somewhere within a range, not as high as we once believed — and certainly not as high as National Geographic suggested.

The producers of the one-hour program that aired Wednesday night went with "60,000 addicts" to support their sensational-sounding assertion that Baltimore is the Heroin Capital of America. That's a cheap, made-for-TV title that exaggerates the problem here and skews who we are.

drodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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