Proposal views addicts in new light Reduction of harm to drug user, society is Schmoke panel's goal

September 10, 1993|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Staff Writer

The nation's failure to tame the drug epidemic ravaging cities such as Baltimore has brought Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's advisers to a stark admission: Many people are going to remain addicts, so society ought to reduce the harm they cause themselves and others.

In the wake of the sweeping proposal made Wednesday by a mayoral panel, Health Commissioner Peter Beilenson said the goal of any new drug policy will be to get people off drugs for good.

But he admits that the proposal places heavy emphasis on programs aimed at reducing crime, disease, joblessness and alienation even as people continue to abuse illicit drugs.

"It's valid that some of this is harm reduction," Dr. Beilenson said. "We realize that for time immemorial, societies have had problems with addictive substances. You have to realize that some people are not going to get off drugs, and you have to reduce the harm -- crime as well as HIV.

"Not just harm to the individual but harm to society."

The recommendations made by the Mayor's Working Group on Drug Policy Reform would, as Dr. Beilenson puts it, "put treatment into the mainstream" by relying more on primary care doctors and clinics to take on a role now performed almost exclusively by drug treatment programs.

Money to train doctors about drug addiction, to run a needle exchange, to expand methadone in clinics and to start a "methadone bus," as the panel has also suggested, would probably have to come from private sources such as foundations. The policy recommendations come at a time when the slots in treatment programs have been cut back to the lowest point in years.

"There are some addicts who can stop being addicts, and we want to encourage that," said Kevin B. Zeese, a panel member who is vice president of the Drug Policy Foundation. "But there are also addicts who are unable to do that for whatever reason. We want to find a way to get these addicts out of the cold and put our arms around them and help them as well."

'Interested in life'

Doubling or tripling the number of addicts taking methadone, as the panel has suggested, might get many people off heroin. But they may have to be given methadone, a more benign narcotic, for years.

"By allowing a maintenance alternative you get a person in the door, functioning, out of the routine of having to acquire illegal drugs," Mr. Zeese said. "The goal is to get them interested in life."

Establishing a clean-needle exchange might, according to some studies, reduce the rate at which addicts transmit the AIDS virus by sharing dirty syringes. By recommending such a program, the panel is conceding that many addicts are going to continue to shoot narcotics no matter what.

Although the principal aim of the "needle exchange" is to curb the spread of AIDS, Dr. Beilenson wants professionals not only to hand out clean syringes but also to refer addicts for treatment. At present, public and private clinics are able to treat about 5,000 addicts in Baltimore at any given time. This number includes slots in detoxification centers, methadone maintenance programs and counseling programs that stress abstinence.

About half of the slots are in methadone programs, which turn away addicts every day because they lack funding to treat everyone. Dr. Beilenson said the city could probably double or triple the availability of methadone by asking primary care doctors and community health clinics to supply it.

This could not happen overnight. The city would train doctors in the proper administration of methadone; the doctors would then have to apply for federal and state permits to prescribe the drug.

Laura Hardesty, a caseworker at Sinai Hospital's methadone program, said there is strong evidence that the drug helps people lead productive lives, but the public needs to redefine its definition of success.

"What I consider success is someone who has stopped using illicit drugs, has a job, no longer is on social services and is working hard to change their lives," she said. "If that means being on methadone for the rest of their lives, that's fine with me. I see that as no different from insulin."

Slow road to recovery

She added, "If the goal is for people to get on methadone and then detoxify, it's the rare bird that doesn't relapse."

Dr. Frank Evans, Sinai's clinical director, said about 30 percent of the 300 addicts under treatment at any given time can be expected to eventually get off all drugs, including methadone.

Rarely is that goal reached quickly. Many addicts take methadone for years before they can even think about giving it up. Then, it can take another two years to get off methadone -- a process achieved by gradually lowering the dose.

Dr. Evans said he doubts that private physicians would have much success delivering methadone to their patients because the job requires a multidisciplined approach. The Sinai program, which treats some 300 addicts, relies primarily on counselors and social workers to help addicts remain clean.

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