Drug abuser medical plan in the works City leaders seek to show treatment works better than jail

Drafting pilot program

Schmoke wants part of funding to come from businesses

April 21, 1996|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer JoAnna Daemmrich contributed to this article.

A private panel of Baltimore leaders who want to substitute medical treatment for jail for the city's drug abusers is drafting a pilot program to prove that the controversial approach would work and to persuade businesses to help fund it.

Details of the plan are developing, but members say the pilot program would take a sample of about 2,000 people from Baltimore's estimated 50,000 heroin and cocaine abusers and track them.

Half would be treated medically and with traditional methods, and the other half would be watched as they go through the criminal justice system. Panel members say they hope the pilot program would show that drug-related crime is significantly lower among the treated abusers.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, a member of the panel that includes some of the most influential medical, business and law enforcement leaders, has said for nearly a decade that jailing addicts is costly and ineffective. This month he gave the panel an ambitious $26 million proposal to revamp the city's drug treatment programs.

Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, a group member, has publicly estimated that the overall cost of drug crimes in the Baltimore area is $3.75 million per day.

Mr. Frazier said the group may try to have a university run the pilot program, for which the group hopes to obtain federal funding.

Two panel members who asked not to be identified said the two groups of addicts likely would be chosen from existing treatment centers. They would be tracked to determine which group of addicts commits the higher number of crimes.

The panel, headed by developer Willard Hackerman, has closely guarded its activities -- mainly to avoid public criticism and scrutiny about developing a decriminalization plan for dealing with illegal drug use.

Mr. Hackerman, who declined to comment for this article, formed the ad hoc group in December. According to two group members who asked not to be named, Mr. Hackerman has been interested in the decriminalization of drugs for many years.

According to a memo obtained by The Sun, Mr. Hackerman sent Mr. Schmoke words of encouragement when Mr. Schmoke first backed drug decriminalization. "No law enforcement can be effective with the profit as high as it is on drugs," Mr. Hackerman wrote on Sept. 15, 1988.

The problem with a plan that substitutes medical treatment for incarceration is proving to the public that the money is being spent wisely, said Dr. Robert Schwartz, director of the University of Maryland Drug Treatment Center.

"The money is being spent anyway in the health care system for people who have [drug-related] AIDS, in the criminal system for people buying drugs and shooting one another," Dr. Schwartz said. "It is just not being spent wisely."

Treatment programs have space for about 4,900 addicts at any given time; about 15,000 people are treated annually. The budget is about $16 million, but that includes money for treatment of alcohol abusers.

The plan Mayor Schmoke submitted to the group would nearly double the number of treatment slots in hopes of treating about 25,000 people. That plan, which he wants businesses to help fund, is essentially a wish list because no money has been pledged.

Arnold Trebach, head of the private Drug Policy Foundation in Washington, said the panel's decriminalization plan is on target.

"I really think we in this country have been brainwashed into thinking that somehow or another you cannot trust the medical profession when it comes to dealing with addicts," said Mr. Trebach, whose group long has supported decriminalization. "It makes no sense to say, if you have diabetes that you can go to a doctor and get your needles, but if you are an addict you can't go and quietly work it out."

Dr. Peter Beilenson, city commissioner of health who drafted the mayor's drug plan, said business leaders need to understand that how the city deals with drug addicts will have a direct effect on the business community.

"We want to encourage business people to look at this as a major economic problem. You're not going to have people working, coming downtown, if drugs are a major issue," Dr. Beilenson said. "This is as important as the convention center. To have economic viability, we have to do something about the drug problem. Otherwise, the city will not be viable economically."

Pub Date: 4/21/96

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