More funds for drug treatment

Glendening plans to fulfill vow made to city 2 years ago

$9 million extra

Funding is expected to survive any cuts in Assembly session

January 03, 2002|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening plans to give the city $9 million more in drug-treatment funding for the next fiscal year, following through on a promise he made two years ago to help Baltimore battle one of its most intractable problems, Mayor Martin O'Malley said yesterday.

The new money for drug treatment was O'Malley's top fiscal priority going into this year's session of the General Assembly, which opens next week. O'Malley had been concerned that the state's budget woes, which include across-the-board spending cuts, would threaten a hard-won commitment from the governor.

Now, with more than $60 million to spend on fighting drug addiction in the fiscal year that will begin July 1, O'Malley said yesterday that the city is well positioned to help more of the city's estimated 55,000 addicts.

"There have always been excuses in the past for why we couldn't make the city a safer place, and one of the leading excuses was that there wasn't enough drug treatment," O'Malley said. "Well, that excuse is gone."

The $9 million will mark the third year in a row of substantial increases in state spending on drug treatment, bringing the state's commitment to roughly $42 million a year starting in July. That would fulfill Glendening's promise to the city two years ago to increase annual treatment funds by $25 million by fiscal 2003.

A Glendening spokeswoman said yesterday that despite tough economic conditions, the governor is trying to honor promises he made in better times.

"What the governor has been saying is, `Don't expect any new initiatives or new programs, but we'll be fighting to sustain the commitments that we made,'" said spokeswoman Michelle Byrnie.

With state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman and Del. Howard P. Rawlings, both Baltimore Democrats, chairing the Assembly's two budget committees, the funding also is expected to survive any legislative cuts.

City officials and drug-treatment professionals said yesterday that the new funding, combined with past increases in state spending, should help thousands of addicts.

Last year, more than 22,000 people were in drug treatment in the city, an increase of more than 5,000 in two years. Overdose deaths, which had totaled more than 300 in 1999 and in 2000, fell to an estimated 241 last year, a one-year drop of 20 percent.

By the end of next year, the number of people treated in a year could come close to 30,000, which would still mean waiting lists for addicts, but not as long as the lists of a few years ago.

"We're about two-thirds of the way to treatment on demand" with the new money, said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city's health commissioner.

City programs are funded by Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems, a quasi-public entity under the city Health Department with more than $50 million in state, federal, local and grant money that it distributes to dozens of private treatment and prevention programs.

It's unclear how far the money will go in battling one of the city's most difficult social ills. Some drug-treatment officials and advocates say they can't positively claim an appreciable decline in drug addicts in the city. And they note that it takes more than treatment programs to fight a problem that has roots in poverty and crime.

"I would love to say that [addicts] are declining, but I don't think they are," said Karen Reese, executive director of Man Alive, a private treatment program.

City officials say they are holding drug-treatment programs more accountable for the public funds they receive, quieting some critics in Annapolis who have worried the money wasn't well spent.

Drug treatment advocates, including Reese, say the new money will be well spent.

"It's extremely important, simply because treatment has to be available on demand. We have addicts on the street that once they make up their mind they want to get the treatment, they want to get it that minute, that day, and if they don't get it, they go back to what they're accustomed to," Reese said.

"Society's going to pay one way or the other, and to pay for treatment is certainly the most humane thing to do, and also makes the most economic sense."

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