City leaders meet privately to devise new drug strategy Panel seeks solutions for substance abuse and crime problems

Treatment favored over jail

Mayor, police chief, cardinal, doctors take part in talks

March 29, 1996|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFFSun staff writer Peter Hermann contributed to this report.

Some of Baltimore's most powerful political, medical and business leaders are meeting privately to formulate a plan to dramatically alter the city's approach to drug enforcement, substituting medical treatment for jail.

The strategy sessions, which began in December, are an unusual attempt by the city's elite to find solutions to the drug and crime crisis in Baltimore.

In a chilling report circulated to panel members, the Abell Foundation said that Baltimore has the highest per-capita rate of heroin use in the nation and predicted that the city's drug problems would worsen as at-risk teen-agers become hardened drug users.

According to interviews and internal documents obtained by The Sun, the group is hoping to craft recommendations to ease the penalties for drug abusers and to allow wider medical treatment for addicts. The panel is even debating the feasibility of supplying addicts with heroin or cocaine.

The members' hope is that a new approach to the treatment of Baltimore's estimated 50,000 drug addicts will decrease crime and spur abusers to begin productive lives, documents show.

The city sponsors 20 methadone treatment clinics for heroin users.

This year, city police expect to break a record set in 1992 when more than 18,000 people were arrested on drug charges.

The existence of the committee -- created by developer Willard J. Hackerman -- has been closely guarded. Yesterday, several of the participants declined to discuss the deliberations or the group's potential recommendations.

The meetings of the panel coincide with recent moves by law enforcement officials to ease the penalties for drug abusers.

In November, the state's attorney doubled the amount of heroin and cocaine needed for charges of drug distribution.

In January, Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, who is on the panel, ordered his officers to de-emphasize petty drug arrests in favor of getting guns off city streets.

Also, two police officers were sent to Rotterdam to study that Dutch city's approach to law enforcement in which police have more latitude in making drug arrests.

These developments occurred with the encouragement of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who called for a debate on drug decriminalization more than 10 years ago.

The as yet unnamed committee met privately on Dec. 21 and March 18 for breakfast at the Sheraton Inner Harbor. The members include: Dr. Morton I. Rapoport, chief executive of the University of Maryland Medical System; Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend; Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation; Dr. Solomon H. Snyder, director of the Department of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins Hospital; and Cardinal William H. Keeler, Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Yesterday, few members would speak openly about the aim of the meetings.

"I wouldn't feel comfortable commenting in any way," said panel member Carl W. Stearn, chief executive of Provident Bank of Baltimore.

Mr. Schmoke was out of town yesterday, but he issued a brief statement that said he attended at the invitation of Mr. Hackerman. Mr. Frazier and Mr. Hackerman did not return repeated phone calls.

But documents about the mission of the panel state that "a solution to the problem may well be a tightly-controlled medical program, enlarging on the methadone program, with physicians treating addicts with controlled substances, weaning them off drugs.

"A program addressing the legal and social ramifications should begin at once."

At the beginning of the first meeting, Mr. Hackerman showed a video tape of a 60 Minutes news segment on the approach to drugs in Liverpool, England, where a medical rather than legal strategy is stressed.

A unanimous agreement was reached proclaiming that "drug addicts must be helped instead of jailed."

According to documents from the Dec. 21 meeting, Mr. Schmoke said, "State law should be changed to allow physicians to be treatment providers without having to receive zoning or other regulatory approvals ."

Panel member Mark Joseph, a former city housing official and president of the Shelter Group, said during the first meeting that "treatment/medicalization would be a large part of the solution to the drug problem."

Dr. Snyder said yesterday that he talked about new research that looks into "drugs to treat cocaine addiction." Mr. Schmoke added that "support was needed for Sol Snyder's research."

But not all of the panel members say they would support decriminalization.

"I can tell you I'm not thinking of decriminalization," Mrs. Townsend said yesterday. "I believe in a mix of sanctions and treatment services."

Just how this panel will influence public policy is unclear. But Mr. Schmoke told the members during the last meeting that he would issue a report on how feasible a medicalization strategy would be.

"He indicated that he would tell the committee what the cost of it was," Mr. Embry said.

Pub Date: 3/29/96

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