Most Baltimore Primary Candidates Back Safe Consumption Sites

May 29, 2020

A survey released by Baltimore-based safe consumption site (SCS) advocacy group the BRIDGES (Baltimore Resources for Indoor Drug-use Grassroots Education and Safety) Coalition shows that 54 out of 74 of the city’s mayoral and council candidates polled answered “yes” to the question, “Will you actively support establishing overdose prevention sites [OPS, another term for SCS] in Baltimore City?”

Conducted over the past two months by Amos Irwin, the program director for Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP*), and Ricky Morris of BRIDGES, the survey indicates growing support for SCS. Individual responses show candidates considering the specifics of SCS implementation and illustrate just how many have been personally affected by the overdose crisis.

“We realized that with the primaries coming up, it was important to find out where candidates stood on overdose prevention sites so that people knew,” Irwin told Filter. “Also it gave us a chance to talk to the candidates while they were still interested in listening.”

Baltimore’s primary election is on June 2. It is the election that matters because the city is so deeply Democratic that that Democratic nominee almost always goes on to win the general election.

“On the phone you can talk to candidates, you can answer their questions,” Morris told Filter. “I had conversations that lasted 40 minutes because they had a strong opinion in the opposite way or they were on the fence and they wanted to know why we would want it.”

Along with the upcoming election, Baltimore was chosen because according to LEAP Executive Director Neill Franklin, the possibility of SCS is strongest there.

“The state of Pennsylvania didn’t move policy forward but the city of Philadelphia is moving policy forward with Safehouse,” Franklin told Filter. “And we think that we have an opportunity to do that here in Baltimore. And that’s the importance of this survey.”

A bill that would have permitted SCS statewide in Maryland stalled earlier this year, for the sixth legislative session in a row. In Baltimore, however, City Council President and mayoral candidate Brandon Scott passed a resolution for an informational hearing on SCS earlier this year and has been consulting BRIDGES as he drafts a bill authorizing SCS in the city.

“There’s nothing that says we can’t do it,” Scott told Filter back in January. “So we can do it.”

Scott is a mayoral candidate frequently polling in the top three, along with Sheila Dixon (Baltimore’s mayor from 2007 to 2010, when she stepped down due to corruption charges), and former Obama Treasury Department official Mary Miller.

BRIDGES’ survey marks both Dixon and Miller as “unsure.” Dixon is reportedly “open to the idea [but] believes more research and learning needs to take place on OPS to determine feasibility to succeed in Baltimore.” Miller, the survey says, “wants to wait until OPS are established in other US cities before investing in them in Baltimore.”

Current Baltimore Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young—who became mayor last year when his predecessor, Catherine Pugh, was also indicted for corruption—is characterized in the survey as being, “unsure how positive results elsewhere might transfer to Baltimore.”

“We hear this a lot from politicians: ‘When we see it somewhere else, we’ll do it.’”

Franklin was not surprised by the responses from those “on the fence.”

“We hear this a lot from politicians: ‘When we see it somewhere else, we’ll do it,’” Franklin said. “‘Let’s see what happens in Philadelphia.’ But by that time, so many lives are lost.”

Concern about community input came up frequently in the survey. In Baltimore, a deeply segregated city with a majority black population pushed to heavily divested neighborhoods, this makes sense, Franklin explained. It also misunderstands what makes SCS effective.

“People who are economically well-off who still have a substance use problem—even if they’re still not in a program—have homes and places where they can go use,” Franklin said. “You have to understand that most of these sites are going to be in our poor communities. They can’t be in a location that’s difficult to access for the people who need the services.”

BRIDGES was established in part to gauge community support. Its street outreach over the past few years has involved going out to working-class Baltimore communities to familiarize people with SCS. Morris, who has been doing naloxone and other harm reduction training throughout the city for years, already sees the support. West Baltimore’s Simmons Memorial Baptist Church, he said, is one of a few churches willing to offer its space for SCS once the city allows it.

“If you got churches wanting to implement and backing overdose prevention sites, then you can’t say no one would want them in their area,” Morris said. “What nobody wants is people dead in the house with needles in their arms or in alleys—that’s what’s not wanted.”

Back in the early ‘90s, Morris himself overdosed. There was a bad batch going around, one that is now infamous among veterans of Baltimore City’s drug scene. There were horse tranquilizers in it.

“Twenty-one people died and I got hit too, but I was lucky enough to survive because I was around some family members when I used,” Morris said. “And I just snorted back then, you didn’t even hear of people OD-ing from snorting.”

A few years later, Morris’s brother and cousin both overdosed. Only one of them survived.

“Both of them got their heroin together and both of them got a bad batch but my cousin, he went back home to his bathroom and when he OD-ed, he fell and his wife heard him and was able to get him help,” Morris said. “But my brother, he was sneaking because he was ashamed. So he goes up in an [abandoned building] and uses, and there was no one to help him. He ended up OD-ing and dying. When they found him he was cold.”

An SCS in Baltimore, Morris explained, would have provided his brother with a place to use drugs, someone to watch over him if he overdosed, and possibly, a “safe haven,” where he could have better processed the shame he felt about using drugs.

Only four of the 74 candidates said they do not support SCS in Baltimore.

Over the phone, some candidates told similar stories about friends and family. Republican mayoral candidate Catalina Byrd has been “directly affected by addiction through family members [and] supports OPS as a way to stop overdose,” the survey says. In one district, both of the leading council candidates, Joseph Kane and Odette Ramos, frame their support through how SCS could help people in their own families.

“This was really personal for many of the candidates,” Irwin said. “There are a tremendous number of candidates who have been personally affected by addiction, both the candidates themselves and through family members.”

Nearly every high-profile candidate running for mayor or city council answered either “yes” to supporting SCS or is “unsure.” Only four of the 74 candidates that could be reached (there are a total of 102) said they do not support SCS in Baltimore.

“The results of this survey were very encouraging,” Irwin said. “It’s time to start answering the questions about location and start making plans. We’re past ‘Should we do it or not?’ and onto, ‘How could we do this most effectively?’”


*LEAP was previously the fiscal sponsor of The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter.

Photo of Baltimore’s City Hall by Marylandstater via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.

Brandon Soderberg

Brandon is Baltimore-based reporter covering cops, drugs, and protest. His book, I Got A Monster: The Rise and Fall of America's Most Corrupt Police Squad is out on St. Martin’s Press later this year.

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