A new study pegs the cost of Baltimore's drug problem at $2.5 billion a year, a sum larger than the city's $1.8 billion budget, encompassing everything from addicts' shoplifting and overflowing prisons to treatment of needle-transmitted AIDS and foster care for abandoned children.
While praising the city's recent expansion of drug treatment, the report declares that achieving "treatment on request" - defined as a treatment slot within 48 hours for anyone seeking it voluntarily or under court order - will require a doubling of slots. It recommends paying for the expansion by raising Maryland's alcohol tax, among the lowest in the nation.
The report, the result of a yearlong study by a Washington research group, was released yesterday at a news conference attended by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Mayor Martin O'Malley in a show of city-state amity.
O'Malley used the occasion to underscore that he is seeking $17 million more in annual drug-treatment money from the state, in addition to the $8 million increase received this year.
"We are proud that the census called Maryland the wealthiest state in the nation," O'Malley said. "We're not so proud that the Drug Enforcement Administration said Baltimore is the most addicted major city in America.
"We have an opportunity to achieve historic reductions in violent crime and the violence of addiction," the mayor said.
Townsend, while praising the mayor's "energy and passion," said she favors an increase in treatment spending but declined to commit to the full $17 million for Baltimore. She noted that the $8 million boost this year, part of an $18.5 million increase in drug-treatment funding statewide, is the largest increase ever.
"For too long in too many Maryland communities, it's been easier to find drugs than to find drug treatment," Townsend said at the news conference at Tuerk House, a West Baltimore treatment facility. "That is unacceptable."
The report was written by Drug Strategies, a nonprofit research institute in Washington that has produced reports on drug problems in Detroit, Washington and several states. The Baltimore report was paid for by grants from the Abell Foundation and the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, both of which have put money into improving drug treatment.
The report gathers statistics, some of them drearily familiar, for a stark portrait of a city where an estimated 1 in 8 adults is an addict. Among the findings:
Heroin continues to dominate the city's drug scene, with a heroin addiction rate 15 times higher than the national average. The price of heroin in Baltimore, low by national standards, fell by a third last year.
Baltimore police made an average of 49 drug arrests a day in 1998. Of adults arrested for all crimes, two-thirds of men and three-quarters of women tested positive for at least one drug, not including alcohol, according to a 1995 study.
Last year, Baltimore spent $415 per resident on policing and court costs, compared with $47 per resident on drug treatment. Those spending priorities are self-defeating, the report suggests, because two-thirds of untreated parolees with a history of cocaine or heroin use return to drug use within three months of release.
As burdened as Baltimore is by narcotics, the report says the city has emerged in recent years as a national leader in building a treatment system. Saying Baltimore is "at the forefront of drug policy innovation," the report lauds the city for increasing treatment funding.
The push for expanding treatment began under former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who in 1996 shifted funds from several city departments to roughly double the treatment budget. Though critical of Schmoke's earlier call for decriminalization of drugs, O'Malley retained Schmoke's health commissioner, Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, and has been even more outspoken than his predecessor in demanding more money from the state for treatment.
Last month, O'Malley publicly criticized Townsend and Gov. Parris N. Glendening for what he considered unnecessary delay in releasing the additional $8 million for treatment in the city.
"It is unconscionable that the state with the most wealth in the nation would allow this addiction to go on," he said.
The $8 million has since been released. But the Drug Strategies report says it is not nearly enough to achieve "treatment on request."
The report notes that what the city spent on drug treatment last year - $28 million - was only enough to serve about one-third of residents who need rehabilitation. And of those slots, very few are long-term residential placements, the most expensive and most effective kind.
As a source for new money, Drug Strategies identifies the state's excise tax on alcoholic beverages. It says no state has a lower tax on hard liquor; Maryland's is $1.50 per gallon compared with a U.S. median in 1998 of $3.25.
The report says increasing the excise tax by 1 cent per drink would produce $18 million a year in revenue. It suggests phasing in a 5-cent increase over five years.
But the report notes the political difficulty of overcoming opposition from makers of alcoholic beverages, liquor store operators and bar and restaurant owners, who together wield formidable power in the General Assembly.