Robey orders drug policy unit created

Committee notes dearth of funds for treating addicts

Findings unveiled

Executive's goal is to carry out ideas in panel's report

January 18, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Nearly 2,000 Howard County residents were in drug treatment in 1999, and heroin's popularity is growing among young people, a study shows. But the county Health Department ran out of money in November to send addicts to drug treatment - only four months into the current budget year.

More than 52 percent of Howard's addicts getting treatment have no health insurance, yet the county has no residential detoxification beds for them. To deal with these problems, Howard County needs a local drug coordinator, perhaps a drug court, more treatment and detox programs, county and community leaders said yesterday at a news conference in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

After the yearlong, $320,000 study by a 75-mem- ber committee paid for by the county government and the Horizon Foundation, County Executive James N. Robey said he's ready to act. "The ball's in my court. I sort of feel like the Ravens after a 20-30-yard runback of a kickoff," Robey said. "There's still a long way to go."

Robey has issued an order creating a Substance Abuse Strategies Unit under the county administrator to put the report's recommendations into action.

The Horizon Foundation was established in 1998 as the result of a merger between Howard County General Hospital and Johns Hopkins Medicine. Endowed with $60 million, the foundation's mission is to promote public health.

Bolstered by a three-year cash grant of $100,000 a year from Horizon, Robey said he will match that with county office space, equipment and workers to create a permanent drug policy steering group run by a drug coordinator.

The task is to take the 26 recommendations produced by the study and transform them into actions and programs to cut drug use and improve treatment, education and enforcement in Howard County.

In North Laurel, for example, Horizon Director Richard M. Krieg said the foundation has provided $105,000 to place a specially trained officer for community policing and drug prevention. Krieg said Robey has agreed to sustain that program after the first year.

Raquel Sanudo, chief county administrative officer, said a co- ordinator could be hired by spring. Robey said he envisions a program even more active than Baltimore County's Office of Substance Abuse, though it would have similar functions.

Michael M. Gimbel, the 21-year director of Baltimore County's operation, said his office pursues grant funding and dispenses it to nonprofits and neighborhood groups throughout the county. His office has been a clearinghouse for coordinating substance abuse information and education programs for young people.

"We're the center hub of responsibility - a coordinating office that helps to motivate other organizations, community groups, parents, kids. There is no other issue that impacts other agencies more than substance abuse," he said.

Gimbel's office is involved with everything from safe senior proms to helping supervise the county's drunken driving treatment center in Owings Mills. It has an annual budget of more than $10 million.

At yesterday's news conference in Ellicott City, each committee chair explained the recommendations that each group produced, although several overlap.

Dennis W. Miller, a Rouse Co. executive who headed the Prevention Committee, called for a thorough school system review of drug awareness and prevention programs, a new after-school program for middle and high school students, and a coordinated media campaign to spread the message.

Barbara Lawson, director of the Columbia Foundation and chairwoman of the Treatment Committee, said Howard needs more coordinated care for addicts.

"We know we need a high-profile leadership authority," she said, adding that "we know we have a growing heroin and alcohol problem."

Communication among county agencies is poor, she said, and there are too many vacant state health department jobs because of low salaries and poor morale from overwork.

Robey said he attended a funeral Monday for a 36-year-old man - a longtime addict who died of an overdose. Treatment and prevention, he said, are a bargain because every $1 of treatment is said to save $7 of damage to society.

Criminal Justice Committee Chairwoman Ann Mech, who teaches at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, said more community policing linked with a possible new drug court in Howard also could help.

Her group recommended a six-month study of the drug court concept, and more creative sentencing in drug cases to try to break the criminal cycle.

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