How $40 million more can aid addicts

March 06, 2000|By Peter L. Beilenson

THE CONSEQUENCES of Baltimore's drug problem are well-known: 75 percent to 90 percent of all crimes committed in the city are drug-related and 80 percent of all AIDS cases are a result of injected drug use.

Many businesses have trouble locating drug-free employees, and our schools are full of kids coping with at least one drug-affected parent.

If we want to be serious about dealing with Baltimore's high crime and AIDS rates, and improve our economy and schools, then we must be serious in addressing our drug problem -- which is 55,000 addicts strong.

Part of the solution is to reform the criminal justice system as Mayor Martin O'Malley is proposing, which will allow the courts to focus on violent drug-related offenders. However, we cannot simply arrest our way out of the drug problem.

Why? Because while we can temporarily clear our streets of the most violent offenders (who are often related to the drug trade), so long as the demand for drugs remains, new suppliers will take their place. The only way to decrease this demand is to significantly expand substance abuse prevention and treatment.

Baltimore's publicly funded drug treatment system treats about 18,000 addicts a year, and does so fairly effectively. In fact, a national scientific advisory group recently called Baltimore's treatment system one of the best in the country.

That doesn't mean it can't be better. The treatment system is about to begin using extensive performance measures to evaluate individual treatment programs.

But the basic fact remains: We do not have anywhere near the treatment capacity we need.

Our best estimate is that about 40,000 addicts each year will request treatment or be required by the courts to receive it.

For this to happen, the treatment system would need an influx of approximately $40 million -- in addition to the current $30 million budget.

What would this $70 million buy? It would allow for treatment within 24 hours of a voluntary request or an order from the courts. Immediate care is crucial because treatment is most effective when addicts admit their problem and seek treatment or sanctions are rapidly enforced.

While getting clean is relatively easy, staying clean is harder. The key to long-term success is keeping recovering addicts drug-free. To that end, it is crucial that we address other problems in their lives. Thus, the $40 million would also provide enhanced services on-site at substance-abuse treatment programs in the city, including mental health and medical services, job readiness training and placement, legal services, housing coordination and day care.

Even in this time of economic prosperity and budget surpluses, $40 million in new funding sounds like a lot of money.

But let's put it in perspective: Crime committed by Baltimore's 55,000 addicts costs an estimated $2 billion to $3 billion each year. The consequences of our city's substance abuse problems are so detrimental to Baltimore's health that fully funded and readily available comprehensive drug treatment is absolutely imperative.

I am so convinced of the importance of this funding and the effectiveness of treatment in preventing crime that I will make this pledge in writing:

If Baltimore's crime rate is not cut in half within three years of obtaining $40 million in additional funding for drug treatment, I will resign.

Dr. Peter L. Beilenson is Baltimore's commissioner of health.

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