Prevention is city's toughest weapon in drug fight

March 31, 2000|By Michael G. Dana

PUTTING ALL your eggs in one basket rarely works, especially when you're talking about beating Baltimore's drug problem. Some public officials are focusing too narrowly when they call for pouring greater state funding into drug treatment alone. It's not as if treating the 40,000 addicts in the city will cure the problem. Data clearly show that only a small percentage of those in treatment ever find their way to recovery.

Unless effective preventive measures are taken, by the time the 40,000 are treated, not only will there be more drug-related crimes, but another 40,000 or so addicts could be on the bud.

The role of treatment

Drug addicts need viable treatment programs that can help them bring their addictions under control and perhaps turn their lives around. Without the constraints of treatment, addicts become veritable time bombs -- because of drug-induced mood swings that trigger violence -- and pose direct threats to the safety, security, health and economy of their community and the nation.

But for Baltimore to change public opinion against drugs and the thugs who market them, the city must immediately start concentrating on substance abuse prevention. This means focusing on rearing, nurturing, mentoring and educating children to instill the values, virtues and resistance skills to avoid a lifestyle of alcohol and drug abuse.

If Mayor Martin O'Malley zeroes in on ways to keep as many children and youth of Baltimore from refraining from first use or further use of alcohol and drugs, fewer addicts and lower crime and violence will be the result.

Changing attitudes and behavior requires motivation and constant reinforcement. TV commercials are just one example of simplistic attempts at prevention, but they just don't cut it. Research shows that unless there's timely and constructive follow-up, the impact of such messages quickly wanes.

A goal of drug abuse prevention is for kids from all walks of life to have a stake in their futures and care about such things as their grades in school and just being good citizens.

For this to happen, a lot of lasting changes must occur. These include rearing children in intact families with loving and involved parents and revitalizing neighborhoods and schools to make them safe and livable. Children must individually develop a sense of personal responsibility and concern for the welfare of others. This is learned from many sources, be it through the behavior of political and public figures or the television programs and movies kids are allowed to watch.

Fighting the tide

However, as Baltimore struggles to right itself against drug abuse, the city can only do so much to counter an entertainment industry bent on saturating their products with gratuitous sex and violence. But Baltimore's leaders can show initiative in networking with drug abuse prevention professionals, police, volunteers, civic organizations, churches, teachers, unions and others to create community coalitions with the same goal: to keep as many of Baltimore's children from ever experimenting with drugs and effectively identifying and stopping those who have just started drug use.

Prevention is no magic bullet. It requires time and patience. Poverty, blighted neighborhoods and lack of opportunity spawn openings for drug trafficking and incentive for use.

Just as it has taken decades for this problem to escalate to where it is today in Baltimore and around the world, it may take an equal amount of time, perhaps longer, for it to be brought under control, if ever.

I say if ever because, in my view, it will require a vigorous and steadfast commitment of energy and resources to turn the tide.

Further, drug abuse, like violence, teen pregnancy and suicide must be tackled, not in a vacuum, but as a symptom of deteriorating values.

Despite any city's diversity, most of us have one thing in common. Experience shows people want to be safe and secure in their homes and live in peaceful, drug-free communities. And, it is against this standard, as the bottom line, that the average parent and citizen can be approached to get involved in drug and crime prevention initiatives in the community.

Strong leaders

To achieve this, strong leadership is imperative. With a creative and committed leader at the helm like Mr. O'Malley, Baltimore could dedicate $40 million to prevention and eventually bring about amazing results in drastically reducing the demand for drugs in Baltimore and, coincidentally, the number of drug addicts.

This is because prevention is the answer -- the only true answer.

Michael G. Dana, Ph.D., a criminologist, formerly served as Demand Reduction Coordinator for the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs in the State Department. He writes from Ellicott City.

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