My friend Amir called early yesterday to find out if I knew of any drug treatment programs that had openings for poor people. "Not for myself," he hastened to add. He was still clean after more than four years without a hit off of a crack pipe. "It's for a girl I know who's having a real hard time."
The woman had not used cocaine in four days, and Amir had rewarded her by taking her out to dinner on Sunday. But as they returned to her apartment in Southeast Washington, he noticed another woman standing outside her door -- apparently just waiting for Amir to go.
Amir knew from experience that this is how some cocaine dealers are responding to the declining demand for their product. They are now stalking customers, hanging out in doorways with free samples, employing the same tactics that created this expanded cocaine market in the first place.
"As soon as I left, the other woman came in," Amir recalled. "Before dawn, they had sold the stereo to buy some crack. I was upset, but I had vowed to stick by her no matter what."
The phone call left me wide awake. Another human being was sinking into the quicksand of cocaine addiction, and this one seemed to have a pretty firm grip on my buddy's heart.
Yet, without his persistence and caring, where would this woman be? She is a mother of three, on welfare, living in a dismal public housing project where cocaine is readily available.
She had been forgotten by all but the drug dealers, who no doubt figure that if anyone is in need of a crack-fueled mood change, it is a person like her.
"She doesn't even enjoy it anymore," Amir said. "She's just hooked and doesn't know how to stop."
Despite his disappointment and frustration, Amir made good on his word. He stood by his friend, listened as she sobbed and promised to do better. Firmly he encouraged her to continue calling him -- but next time to do it before using drugs, not after.
I tried to do my part by making several telephone calls to friends within District-run drug treatment programs. I was told that if Amir's friend could wait three to four weeks, a bed would become available -- unless, of course, strings were pulled and someone else was bumped out of line.
I relayed that to Amir, who took the bad news philosophically.
Drug treatment is more for people who want it, he reasoned, than for those who just need it. And if someone really wants to stop using drugs badly enough, then it isn't absolutely necessary for that person to go into a therapeutic treatment program.
"I've known people who have been in 17 treatment programs, came out and still weren't happy with themselves, couldn't talk about what was in their guts and didn't make it," Amir said.
It was his way of dealing with the sad fact that there are not nearly enough beds for substance abusers in Washington. But he was also right: There are other ways -- such as 12-step programs, which are largely unnoticed but nevertheless nothing short of miraculous.
Amir and his friend would have to go that route. Besides, he knew as well as anyone that the success stories out of the fellowship programs are far more plentiful than any hospital brochure could ever claim to match.
Amir recommitted himself to helping his friend and bid me adieu.
When all was said and done, what had happened was really not that unusual. The fact is, thousands of people in the Washington area are as selfless as Amir. Many of them have spent years answering distress calls in the early morning hours, bailing alcoholics out of jail, taking them to detoxification centers, holding hands and shedding tears.
Not only is that kind of Samaritan work difficult, it can also be dangerous. There is a saying: When trying to save a drowning person, remember that it is easier to be pulled out of the boat than to pull the person aboard. When it comes to recovering addicts who are helping those still using, nothing could be closer to the truth.
Amir knew that. But he also held firm to another belief: You keep what you have only by giving it away. Thus, he worked to help his friend get straight as if his own ability to stay straight depended upon it.
The point here, I suppose, is that there is more to the crusade against drugs than arrests and seizures of cocaine and cash. When people such as Amir can save other suffering addicts, demand for mood- altering substances is reduced -- and the real war on drugs is won.