Substance abuse efforts lapse into a withdrawal


July 18, 1999|By Norris West

MANY CHEERED when County Executive Janet S. Owens released the first budget of her administration, but the substance abuse treatment community reacted quite differently.

Ms. Owens presented the budget she advertised on the political trail last fall. She campaigned hard and consistently on a pro-education platform. After her upset victory over the incumbent, she kept her promise by increasing the Board of Education's budget by $29 million for the fiscal year that began 17 days ago.

The executive held the line on spending for most programs to pay for the increase.

Surprise cuts

What treatment centers did not expect, however, were the drastic cuts in the county's substance abuse and prevention programs that officials boosted a year earlier.

Former County Executive John G. Gary allocated $1.5 million for a new program to treat offenders, but the current administration trimmed the county's spending for that measure to $330,000, says Barry Wilen, chairman of the Substance Abuse Treatment Council of Anne Arundel.

The county made these cuts although no one would dare argue that the need for drug treatment slots has declined in the last year.

Clearly, Anne Arundel's drug problem cannot compare to Baltimore's or Washington's or Prince George's County's.

Baltimore is a city in which one of eight adults is addicted to drugs. Charm City spends $33 million a year to finance 8,000 slots -- about half of what it needs. And drugs were a factor in 75 percent of the city's 314 homicides last year.

Nationwide, drug abuse costs the economy an estimated $110 million a year. Crime, medical care, time lost from work and welfare ring up much of the bill, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Phantom menace

Arundel's problems are manageable. The number of addicts pales in comparison to the city's. But the phantom menace can get worse if not kept in check.

The state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reports dramatic increases in heroin-related admissions in many suburban and rural counties. Although the agency did not mention Arundel as one of the counties with a major increase, its figures illustrate that the most feared substances invade outlying areas as well as urban centers.

A county such as Arundel can control the problem -- at least to a reasonable degree -- by treating addicts and preventing residents from becoming addicts.

NIDA says studies show that every dollar spent on drug treatment saves socciety $4 to $7. That should come as no surprise when incarceration costs $3,600 a month but a few hundred dollars to provide treatment.

The county program that Mr. Gary put in place subsidized treatment for 800 addicts who came through the criminal justice system in the fiscal year that ended June 30. Under the former executive's program, the county's health department paid to provide treatment for the offenders at 15 private centers.

Mr. Wilen's Alcohol and Drug Recovery clinics participated in the program. Last year, he thought that Mr. Gary's initiative would be just the start of an extensive county program that would not just help offenders get straight, but would expand to treat addicts who are not in the criminal justice system.

No new clients

He says his organization contacted Ms. Owens and the new County Council after their installation to seek a meeting. The group did not receive a response until it learned that the new executive planned to eliminate Mr. Gary's program.

He says county officials instructed him and other centers not to enroll any new clients because the program would wind down after those already getting help complete their treatment.

A reprieve, of sorts, came when the county executive decided to provide $330,000 for the program -- a little more than one-fifth of what her predecessor provided. Combined with federal and state funds, the program operates on about $500,000 a year.

The county has restricted the program to juveniles and pretrial offenders, with whom they are likely to have greater success because those who fail to show up know the county can jail them.

Although the success rate may be higher, the number of people getting clean will drop. The new program will treat only a quarter of the addicts served last year.

Also, Ms. Owens has dismantled the Health Department's Office of Prevention Service, dividing its functions among other county departments.

Mr. Wilen says that office had earned a reputation for being aggressive and successful.

Ms. Owens must remember that Arundel residents' support for education did not necessarily mean they wanted to abandon a dynamic duo of crime-fighting -- treatment and prevention. That combination has proven its worth.

Norris P. West is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County. His e-mail address is

Pub Date: 7/18/99

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