For many in the local Orthodox Jewish community, the heroin crisis in Baltimore City is one of the furthest political issues in our minds. We talk about other local and national issues: we were angry about the Rain Tax; we were upset that the anticipated additional $5 million in state funding for school vouchers didn’t make it into Governor Hogan’s 2017 budget; and we applauded Ambassador Nikki Haley’s defense of Israel in the United Nations. But as a prosecuting attorney for the City of Baltimore and a mother of two young children, I am genuinely concerned about heroin addiction in our city, and you should be too. Here’s why.
The heroin epidemic is a growing, but not new, problem in Baltimore. Few know that it has been hurting our city since the 1950s, and in recent years Baltimore has become renowned nationally as the “Heroin Capital of the U.S.” Experts claim that that at least one in 10 Baltimore City residents is addicted to this devastating drug, beyond the population addicted to other drugs or alcohol.
We do not talk much about drug abuse in Baltimore's Orthodox community, but it is an unfortunate reality, as is drug overdose and addiction to painkillers or prescription drugs. Unfortunately, what happens in broader society ultimately impacts the Jewish community. Local Jewish families quietly suffer as family members, both adults and youth, already have strayed towards drug use, which can eventually lead to heroin use. The easy access to heroin in Baltimore is dangerous for our families.
Two years ago, the OU’s Jewish Action Magazine alerted the community to the realities of heroin. “Not surprisingly, abuse of prescribed opiate painkillers often leads to heroin use.” And it cited Menachem Poznanski, a clinical director of a post-rehab program in Brooklyn catering to Orthodox teens, who noted that “There’s a [typical] progression. Pot to painkillers to heroin. [Nowadays,] heroin is cheaper and more available.”
According to the Baltimore City Health Department, “In 2014, 303 people died of drug and alcohol overdoses, a 19% increase from 2013. Of those who died of overdose in 2014, 192 people died as a result of heroin intoxication. This is more than the number of people who died of homicide in our city.” And the number has risen since then.
Heroin addiction demands more of our tax dollars towards greater police efforts. Ultimately, heroin use means higher crime, as addicts illicitly seek to obtain funds to purchase drugs. While we do not usually see drug use on our streets, we feel the crime spillover from neighborhoods where heroin is in greater use. As our community is well aware, increased crime in our neighborhoods is a plague that worries us around the clock. And while Baltimore has such a high heroin use rate that it was designated by the federal government as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which has provided additional federal assistance to local police, there is still insufficient funding for them to adequately halt the severe crime in Baltimore City. And if the pattern continues, an increase in Baltimore heroin use will result in an increase in local crime.
Moreover, heroin addiction requires directing more of our tax dollars towards treatment and prevention, funds which could have been used towards education, transportation, tax cuts and other activities. This past March, Governor Larry Hogan designated an additional $10 million in funding towards battling heroin and prescription pill abuse. This is “above the $122 million the state had budgeted for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to treat substance use problems in the next fiscal year”, according to the Baltimore Sun.
So what does this all mean for Baltimore City and the Orthodox Jewish community? Much of the drug and heroin addiction in Baltimore is directly related to the poverty in the city. Until we bring more better paying jobs, better public transportation to those jobs, and an improved education system that includes training for jobs, the cycle of poverty will continue for far too many. And that could lead them down the path of drugs and ultimately, heroin use.
Baltimore City Councilman Yitzy Schleifer is working hard in City Hall, and collaborating with the Police Department, to help make our neighborhoods safer, but we must also be paying attention to the government activities in Annapolis. While we applaud tax cuts, jump for joy at the prospects of more school vouchers, and are in glee with the state’s efforts to create more jobs around the state, let’s not overlook issues like battling heroin that on the surface do not seem to affect us, but really do.