Baltimore may rewrite anti-drug policy Focus on arresting traffickers, treating addicts, panel says

September 09, 1993|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Staff Writer Staff writers John W. Frece and Scott Shane contributed to this article.

Five years after Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke first called for a national debate on drugs, a mayoral task force yesterday proposed sweeping changes in drug policy -- changes that would create a fresh strategy to attack the ills that addiction inflicts on the city.

In a draft report, the Mayor's Working Group on Drug Policy Reform recommended that Baltimore take a new direction in confronting its drug epidemic -- emphasizing treatment instead of jail, arrest policies that target traffickers over users and training in addiction for doctors and nurses.

The mayor assembled the working group -- which includes public health officials, social scientists, doctors, nurses, a police representative, lawyers and a judge -- last spring and charged it with creating an urban drug-reform model.

He asked its members to move the debate over drugs out of the realm of theory, where it has languished for years, and to devise practical steps the city can take to ease the problems created by drug abuse -- addiction, crime, violence, prison overcrowding and lost job productivity.

"Some people would view this report as being radical," Mr. Schmoke said last night, after being briefed on the panel's conclusions. "I view it as calling for reform rather than revolution and incremental change rather than a radical reversal of policy.

"I wanted to see what a local government could do to change policy without waiting for major changes in national policies -- how we could change the emphasis to a public health approach while we're waiting for the federal government," Mr. Schmoke said.

"We're really trying to design urban policy," said Kevin B. Zeese, a panel member who is vice president of the Drug Policy Foundation. "And that's what we've done here."

Beyond Baltimore, Mr. Schmoke wants to use the panel's report to spark national action on the drug crisis. He said he will take the document to the international summit on drugs here in November. And he also plans to send the report, which will be available in six to eight weeks, to the League of Cities and the National Conference of Mayors.

Proposals

The panel yesterday made recommendations in five major areas. Among its proposals:

* Make methadone, the maintenance drug used to move addicts off heroin, more available -- including the use of vans to bring the drug to addicts around the city. Panel members said studies have shown that where methadone is more available, crime decreases.

Encourage public and private clinics to get federal licenses for dispensing methadone. This would make it easier for addicts, who now have to wait for space to open in a treatment program, to get help. It also would allow one doctor to treat addiction and other medical problems, instead of sending addicts to two places.

Encourage research to find effective maintenance drugs for addicts using cocaine and other substances.

* Support the mayor's plan to begin a needle-exchange program in an effort to stem the spread of the AIDS virus. Urge the state legislature to exempt such plans from the state law against the sale of drug paraphernalia.

* Ask the police commissioner to review police arrest policies, with a goal of putting less emphasis on arrest of nonviolent drug users while focusing on violent offenders, organized crime and drug traffickers.

Too much police and court time is spent on simple drug possession, panel members say. In 1992, of 15,954 drug arrests Baltimore, 9,019 or 57 percent, were for possession and 6,935 or 43 percent, were for sales, according to Police Department figures.

Support the creation of a "drug court," modeled on a Dade County, Fla., system, in which nonviolent drug users are steered long-term treatment instead of jail.

* Create more treatment options by training primary-care doctors, nurses, assistants and pharmacists to diagnose and treat drug abuse and the medical problems that accompany it. Medical staffs outside treatment centers now have little training in addiction and are reluctant to treat addicts, the panel members said. Encourage the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins medical schools to create training programs.

* Urge the mayor to continue discussing the failure of the war on drugs and to promote the new approaches set out in the panel report.

The proposals are an effort to deal more effectively with Baltimore's estimated 35,000 intravenous drug users, plus an undetermined number of addicts who smoke or snort drugs. Between 10,000 and 13,000 of intravenous drug users carry the AIDS virus, city health officials say.

But only 5,000 spaces are available in treatment programs here; 23,000 people a year move through those programs -- but that number includes people who stay only a day or two and go back to drug abuse, said Dr. Peter Beilenson, Baltimore's health commissioner.

Critics emerge

The members know that some of their recommendations will draw strong public disapproval. Last night, in fact, it drew some skepticism.

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