City's drug woes detailed

Local officials paint a dismal picture for House members

`Falling through cracks'

March 28, 2000|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Half the drug addicts referred for treatment under the state's vaunted "Break the Cycle" program fail to show up for their first appointment but face no punishment, a veteran Baltimore treatment program director said at a congressional hearing yesterday.

"They say, `You must go to treatment. You must take a urine test.' But if you don't do it, nothing happens," said George McCann, executive director of Addict Referral and Counseling Center on 25th Street. "Hundreds of these people are falling through the cracks. They're out there committing more crimes."

McCann was one of a dozen witnesses, including Mayor Martin O'Malley and Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, at a House subcommittee hearing on Baltimore's drug addiction epidemic. The session at the University of Baltimore School of Nursing was organized by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a West Baltimore Democrat, and Rep. John L. Mica, a Florida Republican and chairman of the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources.

FOR THE RECORD - An article yesterday about a congressional hearing on the drug problem in Baltimore incorrectly stated where it took place. It was held at the University of Maryland School of Nursing. The Sun regrets the errors.

"Incarcerating drug addicts has not stopped the cycle of drugs, destruction and death in Baltimore," said Cummings, who noted that his family has experienced tragedy with drugs first-hand. He said his brother-in-law died three years ago from complications of drug addiction. "Forty-three years old," he said. "I just watched him disintegrate."

Mica expressed astonishment at state estimates that Baltimore has as many as 60,000 residents in need of drug treatment.

"Something's gone dramatically wrong here," he said. "That's 10 percent of the population. If that was true nationwide, we'd have more than 20 million drug addicts," he said.

O'Malley and Ruppersberger repeated their vows to cooperate in the fight against drug-fueled crime, and both men called for greater funding for drug treatment.

But they chose contrasting examples of how crime crosses the city-county line.

O'Malley noted that recent city police stings in which officers pose as drug dealers have found many county residents visiting Baltimore to buy drugs. "You'll see young, white suburbanites enter the neighborhood, see the police, do a U-turn and book it out of Baltimore," he said.

Ruppersberger agreed that "crime has no geographic boundaries." He said 39 percent of suspects arrested for violent crimes in Baltimore County reside in Baltimore.

Both men agreed that more drug treatment slots are badly needed. O'Malley is seeking $25 million more per year from the state for drug treatment, in addition to about $30 million now being spent in the city.

McCann, a former addict who helped found Addict Referral and Counseling Center 30 years ago, said his program is not at capacity -- partly because spaces reserved for referrals from Break the Cycle go unfilled when addicts don't show up. He said the drug-free outpatient program serves 160 but could handle another 55 people.

Break the Cycle, launched two years ago by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, uses frequent urine testing and a series of escalating punishments for drug use to keep addicts on the path to recovery. Townsend has said early results from the program indicate it might reduce drug use and recidivism.

McCann said he believes the concept behind Break the Cycle is valid. But he said probation officers' caseloads are too large for them to hold addicts accountable, and that the addicts know it.

Stuart O. Simms, who oversees the program as secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, acknowledged problems in getting addicts to show up. He noted that the program has enrolled more than 20,000 offenders in its first two years and said probation agents -- each with an average of about 100 active cases -- have been overwhelmed.

"I understand Mr. McCann's frustration," Simms said. He said he has asked the General Assembly for 41 probation and parole agents in addition to the 639 at work today.

"I said we think this is just the first installment," he said. With prisons filled, the department needs more agents to supervise convicted criminals in the community, he said.

Faye S. Taxman, a University of Maryland criminologist who praised Break the Cycle in her testimony yesterday, said no-shows are "a perpetual problem in drug treatment" and that the program needs more time to work out difficulties. "It really takes three years to get up and running," she said.

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