Back in January 2020, before the pandemic, then-City Council President (now Mayor) Brandon Scott introduced a resolution that called for an informational hearing about “overdose prevention sites”—places where people can use drugs safely without having to worry about arrest. There are more than 100 of these sites around the world, and no one has ever fatally overdosed at one of them. Currently, there are very few in the United States. Rhode Island intends to launch a pilot site and New York City opened two sites in Manhattan this week

“If the state or the law department or someone else doesn’t think the council has the authority to authorize [overdose prevention sites], then we’ll have the discussion,” Scott told me at the time. “Saving the lives of Baltimoreans is worth the risk of making some other government body mad or running the risk of having to defend why we want to save lives.”

Despite ongoing advocacy from the BRIDGES Coalition (Baltimore Resources for Indoor Drug-use Grassroots Education and Safety) and vocal support from Mayor Scott and Baltimore City States’ Attorney Marilyn Mosby, further movement on overdose prevention sites in Baltimore has been slow moving.

In the meantime, Mosby announced her office would no longer prosecute Baltimoreans for drug possession. The results are notable. In 2019, there were 3,770 arrests for drug offenses, according to the Baltimore Police. In 2020, there were 1,348 arrests. What was originally introduced as a temporary policy during the start of the pandemic has continued.

Earlier this year, a bill to decriminalize drug paraphernalia passed the state legislature. It was the only bill passed in 2021 that significantly addressed the overdose crisis. That drug paraphernalia decriminalization bill, however, was vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan, who claimed in his veto letter that it would “encourage” drug use, which is simply and demonstrably untrue. In 2017, Hogan also called overdose prevention sites “insane.” 

This month, there is a special legislative session in Annapolis, and the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition and others are calling for the state legislature to overturn Hogan’s veto. To discuss why, Battleground Baltimore interviewed Rajani Gudlavalleti, director of mobilization for the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition.

Battleground Baltimore: Can you explain to Real News readers why you’re pushing to overturn the veto?

Rajani Gudlavalleti: The majority of Maryland legislators voted to pass Senate Bill 420 to decriminalize possession of drug paraphernalia because it will reduce risk of overdose, transmission of HIV and Hep C, and overdose. Harm reduction organizations have been authorized to operate syringe service programs which hand out supplies to increase health and safety among people who use drugs and our communities. Pharmacies are able to distribute these items in counties without syringe service programs. However, syringe service program staff and program participants still receive citations and harassment from law enforcement, which is why we need to decriminalize possession of these life-saving supplies. If the veto on SB420 is not overturned, Maryland legislators in 2022 and likely 2023 will hear another version of this bill to ensure some form of paraphernalia decriminalization—a version that will likely stretch out the progress towards the life-saving policies we need in place right now to curb the deadly impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and overdose epidemic. 

BB: Why is something such as this especially important during the pandemic? 

RG: SB420 was the only bill passed in Annapolis this year with the potential to significantly curb the overdose epidemic, which is particularly important as our loved ones most vulnerable to overdose are also extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 exposure. From what we are seeing across the country since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, overdose deaths are continuing to increase among Black and Indigenous people—now back to being higher than among white people for the first time since 1999. At a time when Baltimore’s overdose rate is among the highest in the nation, it is clear that we need to use every tool in the prevention toolbox, including decriminalization. 

Decriminalizing paraphernalia is a good faith effort to show people who use drugs that we care about their wellbeing and want to see them healthy and out of the system.

Rajani Gudlavalleti, director of mobilization for the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition

BB: I’ve spoken to a person who uses drugs for the piece who was talking up fentanyl testing strips. Could BHRC explain where those fall in terms of decriminalization and why that’s important?

RG: In 2018, we successfully advocated to repeal paraphernalia law criminalizing items “to test or analyze drugs” including fentanyl test strips. Since then, BHRC and the other 15+ SSPs in Maryland have distributed thousands of testing strips to our program participants along with safer drug use supplies, NARCAN, and various other public health supplies. We value the excitement around using drug testing tools to help make informed decisions about if and what to consume. And, in order for that 2018 law to be more effective in practice, we need to decriminalize possession of the drug use supplies (aka paraphernalia) needed to test the drug supply. In order to use a fentanyl testing strip, you need a small amount of residue of the drug—usually found in a spoon, cooker, needle, supplies that are currently illegal to carry. In order for people to more safely utilize the testing strips, they need to feel safer from criminalization for holding the paraphernalia.

BB: How would you characterize concerns from people who use drugs in terms of paraphernalia? 

RG: The fear of harassment, arrest, and incarceration is embedded into our society via the drug war and institutionalized racism and classism. This shows up as people hiding—hiding themselves to use alone which increases chance of overdose death, hiding their supplies on their person or belongings in places that might be hard to find or could cause injuries, hiding their used supplies in streets, allies, and parks where anyone can (intentionally or not) come in contact with these used tools. Additionally, decriminalizing paraphernalia is a good faith effort to show people who use drugs that we care about their wellbeing and want to see them healthy and out of the system.

BB: What even bigger picture fixes is BHRC pushing for?

RG: In the last hours of the 2021 legislative session, after passing SB420, Senate President Bill Ferguson identified himself as a proponent of SB420 and said, “The War on Drugs has failed. It has failed. It has fundamentally failed. We have destroyed segments of our society. If we do not have a new approach to drugs we will continue down the same path.” Decriminalizing paraphernalia is a step to abolishing the drug war. Decriminalizing paraphernalia is a piece of the puzzle to abolish the police, as it decriminalizing possession of drugs in any amount, and decriminalizing sex work.

Additionally, decriminalization alone will not end overdose—we need Baltimore City Council and Maryland legislators to legally authorize CBOs to operate overdose prevention sites (OPS). OPS are legally sanctioned indoor spaces where people can consume their own drugs with immediate access to life-saving interventions, medical care, emotional support, and non-judgemental therapeutic relationships. OPS are not “the solution” to the overdose epidemic, but a vital crisis intervention tool positioned within the continuum of care to reduce overdose rates. OPS do not “replace” treatment services or syringe service programs, but would increase the benefits of such services and by providing a reliable, safe space to be revived should an overdose occur. Decades of evidence show that community-run OPS reduce overdose fatalities and disease transmission, and are uniquely able to engage historically marginalized people who are most at risk of overdose.

Two weeks ago, the Baltimore City Council’s HET Committee held an investigative hearing on the overdose epidemic, and heard from representatives from the BRIDGES Coalition for OPS as well as the Baltimore City Health Department which stated its support for OPS to operate in Baltimore. They must move on a resolution or request for state action now.

You can read “They Want Us Dead: Another year of devastating overdoses in Baltimore” here.

Maryland Cops Call Overtime ‘EASY MONEY

On Nov. 16, 69 year-old Evelyn Player was killed in the Southern Baptist Church, an East Baltimore megachurch. She was found by a maintenance worker; her body had been stabbed and cut. The murder was, like all of the 300-plus murders in the city, a tragedy and a sign of a myraid of instituional failings. It was also, because of Player’s age and the location, an opportunity for many of usual suspects to demagogue the city and argue for more police and more aggressive police—despite the fact that the police here right now clearly failed to stop this and hundreds of other murders.

Apparently, the murder was also an opportunity for Maryland State Police to make some overtime money. An email accidentally sent out to the press—and highlighted by the Baltimore Sun‘s Justin Fenton—shows Maryland State Police looking for officers to work overtime at the Southern Baptist Church in response to the murder, but it’s how it is framed that has angered many Baltimoreans—especially those critical of police spending amid the burgeoning defund the police movement. The subject of the email read, “Southern Baptist Church Overtime EASY MONEY $$$$$$$$$.”

The city, especially thanks to Gov. Larry Hogan, is using more and more state police officers to allegedly assist Baltimore Police with crime, but the email lays bare the attitude many of these cops have toward the city and their jobs: “easy money.” A suspect was actually arrested yesterday, Dec. 2, before the email was sent out.

$1 Homes, Explained

Last week, The Real News published an in-depth story by Battleground Baltimore’s Jaisal Noor that dug a little deeper than everyone else has into the reality of Council President Nick Mosby’s $1 dollar homes program. What Noor showed is that the original program on which it is based was not quite as successful as it has been made out to be, and Mosby’s reimagined version actually has the potential to make things less equitable.

Many housing advocates, and even some investors, are suspicious. They say Mosby’s legislation is duplicative of policies already in place and warn that, if previous attempts at this program are any indication, the program would overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy and real estate developers.

Housing Our Neighbors, a grassroots membership organization that fights for affordable housing and the rights of those facing housing precarity and eviction in Baltimore, called Mosby’s dollar homes program ‘a PR move.’

You can read “A Nostalgic Fantasy: Baltimore’s $1 homes explained” here.

Two weeks ago, Battleground Baltimore also called attention to the way Mosby frequently uses the official Baltimore City Council Instagram to promote himself and policies he supports. Sometimes, he even uses the IG to wish himself a happy birthday, as he did in this March 10 post featuring Mosby in front of an outer space background with twinkling animated stars that wishes the council president “Happy Birthday.” He has also used it to promote the $1 dollar homes program, not with informational posts but posts that border on propaganda. For example, earlier this week, Mosby announced an “exclusive interview” (his words, not ours) about the program with a Baltimore County-based realtor. In the caption, this is framed as a way to “know more about the dollar house proposal” but the event was much closer to propaganda for the program.

As Battleground Baltimore reported last month, while 59% of the Instagram account’s posts are, ostensibly, informational, much of the remaining posts—35% of them—are posts about Mosby and/or prominently feature him. 

Omicron Variant in Baltimore

The Omicron variant of COVID-19 had made it to Baltimore. That was announced by Gov. Larry Hogan on Friday Dec. 3. According to the press conference, there are three confirmed cases of the variant in the state of Maryland, all in “the Baltimore region.” Two of the people who tested positive for the variant live together, and one of those two had recently travelled to South Africa. That person was vaccinated. Additionally, one person who has not been vaccinated who had been in close contact with the other two people tested positive for the variant.

“Getting a vaccine or a booster shot is the single most important thing that you can do to protect yourself and those around you,” Hogan said.

Eddie Conway on the death penalty

At the end of last month, The Real News Network’s Eddie Conway, a former political prisoner and former member of the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panthers, spoke to Sister Helen Prejean, a leading advocate against the death penalty. It is an important conversation about the “barbarous stain on humanity” that is the death penalty. Watch it here or embedded below.

YouTube video

Thread of the week: @Bikemore on BPD and crash information

On Nov. 19, a man on a bicycle was hit by a man driving a Ford F-150. The cyclist later died. The driver’s truck is actually owned by the city and the driver, a Baltimore County resident. As Bikemore said, “We believe there’s more to this story because of the seemingly intentional lack of notification and subsequent refusal by BPD to release the basic crash information we are typically given.” In this short thread, @Bikemore calls attention to the lack of information about the fatal crash and the Baltimore Police Department’s inaction—and it would seem disinterest—and adequate updating Bikemore and others about the nature of the crash.

Tweet of the week: @DerekFromBmore on the Bell Foundry

At the end of 2016, the artists occupying the DIY space the Bell Foundry, located at 1539 N. Calvert St., were evicted. At the time, it was framed as a response to the tragic fire at the Ghost Ship space in Oakland, but it also seemed to be the first step towards turning the building into expensive apartments or something along those lines—pretty much the opposite of a DIY space. 

Now the building has been repainted, removing its trippy mural—along with any of the remaining spirit the building exhibited—to make way for a building that, as @DerekFromBmore tweeted, “is gentrification gray now.” It’s an all-too common story in Baltimore: Let an arts community thrive until it’s worth enough to developers, and then snatch it away. We’ll be listening to JPEGMAFIA’s “1539 N. Calvert St.” on a loop for the rest of the weekend and trying to contain our rage.

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Brandon Soderberg is a Baltimore-based writer reporting on guns, drugs, and police corruption. He is the coauthor of I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad. Formerly, he was the editor-in-chief of the Baltimore City Paper. His work has appeared in The Intercept, VICE, The Appeal, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @notrivia.