Confusing drug data symbolizes problems

Treatment debate: City and state officials must end mutual distrust and seek workable strategies.

April 27, 2000

IF BALTIMORE'S drug-treatment efforts are successful, why isn't the estimated number of addicts going down? And why hasn't dramatically increased funding produced more treatment slots?

Questions like these baffle Gov. Parris N. Glendening. He gave Baltimore an additional $8 million toward drug treatment in his latest budget -- even though he recently said through a spokesman that he lacks confidence in the administration of the city's drug treatment programs.

The comments attributed to Mr. Glendening came after Dr. Peter L. Beilenson attacked the governor's failure to fully fund the city's request for $25 million in added state aid.

Health Commissioner Beilenson performed a public service.

For the first time, Mr. Glendening has now been drawn into the drug treatment debate. This is healthy and long overdue.

Last June, The Sun attempted to open a similar public examination of the city's drug treatment effort by publishing two editorials that questioned BSAS's governance and efficiency. Since then, the quasi-governmental agency has undertaken a series of reforms aimed at improving operations.

Despite the changes, state officials remain dissatisfied with BSAS.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Public Safety Secretary Stuart O. Simms are among BSAS members. Yet, they have offered no detailed criticism of BSAS to the board.

In interviews, Ms. Townsend and other state officials have said they feel that BSAS is failing in at least two respects: The agency cannot demonstrate its effectiveness because its data are often inconsistent. Its programs also fail to recognize the obvious link between addiction and crime.

The latter point is a key source of friction.

About 60,000 people here use heroin or cocaine. While most addicts are not violent, the merciless drug trade has turned Baltimore into one of the nation's most lethal cities.

Instead of addressing this reality before the BSAS board, though, Ms. Townsend is using her Maryland Drug Treatment Task Force as a vehicle to develop statewide guidelines and policies that could force BSAS to coordinate drug treatment with crime-fighting agencies.

In the meantime, BSAS and Ms. Townsend's task force are moving on separate tracks.

A case in point is BSAS' April 4 draft operating plan. It deals with such issues as providing addicts legal, job and housing counseling as well as an array of health programs. Absent from the draft is any mention of crime intervention or drug-abuse prevention.

Meanwhile, Ms. Townsend is advocating a "Break the Cycle" initiative. Its aim is to reduce crime by giving non-violent offenders an alternative to jail sentences as long as they stay off drugs.

Each approach has its passionate proponents. BSAS supporters say its programs are among the best in the nation; Ms. Townsend regards her initiative as a break-through concept. (The lieutenant governor hopes to get more ammunition for her position through an audit that compares the effectiveness of different treatment programs.)

In reality, both sides are grappling with huge problems. The lack of treatment slots -- as well as an overburdened and understaffed probation agency -- hamper "Break the Cycle" efforts. BSAS, for its part, is overwhelmed by the enormity of the city's drug crisis.

In the end, both state and city officials are trying to find answers to the same problem. This common goal has been lost in the disagreements over strategies and limited resources. It must be reasserted.

Like many other burning social issues in Maryland, the acute drug crisis is primarily a Baltimore City problem. This makes it easy for legislators from other areas to ignore. They do so at their own peril, though, because no area is immune to the curse of addiction.

State and city officials should re-establish mutual trust and unite in providing more treatment slots in programs that work. But such efforts are doomed to failure, unless they can document success. For that, they will need data that are accurate and unambiguous.

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