A drug czar post needed, Robey says

Better coordination of prevention and treatment efforts the aim

`I want it to happen'

The position would be at the level of a deputy health officer

October 17, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County needs a drug czar to raise the profile of the county's drug-fighting efforts and to better coordinate prevention and treatment programs, County Executive James N. Robey said at a candidates forum yesterday.

"There are a lot of overlapping services. I want to create a position in the Department of Health to oversee all drug programs," Robey said at Owen Brown Interfaith Center. The job would be at the level of a deputy health officer.

The proposal is the latest effort in the fight against substance abuse since the release in January last year of the Delta Project study -- a comprehensive assessment of the county's often-neglected substance abuse problem.

The drug czar proposal is also a sign, Robey said, of his belief that the drug scourge must be approached from a health perspective, rather than a law enforcement one.

"I want it to happen," Robey said.

The $320,000 Delta Project study said Howard had nearly 2,000 residents in drug treatment during 1999, but no residential detoxification beds for the 52 percent of them who had no private health insurance.

For some Howard residents -- such as Gina Massella, whose 17-year-old son Damien died in 1998 of a drug overdose -- the grim reality of such statistics challenges Robey's proposal to create a new administrative position.

A high school vice principal who advocates drug treatment in school for teen addicts, she wonders if the new job is just one more bureaucratic move that won't touch the people who need help.

"It concerns me that it's going to become part of the red tape and the bureaucracy," she said. Whoever is hired "needs to be a dynamic person who will not roll over to political correctness" or yield to political pressure, she said.

Howard health officer Dr. Penny E. Borenstein said the drug czar job could be in existence "within the next six months," funded by a combination of grant and county money.

Jesse K. Smith, the retired principal hired in June last year as the county's temporary drug program coordinator, would work under the newly created position.

Robey's proposal gained instant support from several County Council candidates who also spoke at the forum, which was sponsored by the Association of Community Services of Howard County. Robey, a Democrat, is running for re-election and is being challenged by Republican Steven H. Adler.

It was also endorsed by Richard M. Krieg, president of the Horizon Foundation, which helped finance the groundbreaking Delta study. The study recommended a drug court and more treatment programs and documented the size of the county's drug problem for the first time.

"I think it's a good idea," Krieg said, pointing out that his foundation is evaluating the response to the study.

"The county's been working on the drug court," among other things the study recommended, he said.

Mike Gimbel, director of Baltimore County's Office of Substance Abuse for 22 years, also said a drug czar is needed.

"With drug and alcohol abuse being such a complicated issue with so many agencies involved, the local government needs somebody who can be accountable for the coordination of all the activities," he said.

"Unless there's somebody in charge of pulling it all together, you end up with duplication and confusion. It leads to a waste of money."

Gimbel said that a drug czar office could pay for itself in savings and added grant funds.

Howard State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon said Robey's proposal "is good news and news that a number of us have been requesting for years."

The group planning the drug court "is working at a high level of intensity" to be ready, if money is there, to start hearing cases as early as July, McLendon said.

Smith said that in addition to planning the drug court, he has been working with the Substance Abuse Strategy Unit, a planning group created to help implement Delta report recommendations, to produce a "Parent Tool Kit" to help parents look for signs of drug and alcohol abuse.

Marty Slutsky, president and chief executive officer of MSA-The Adolescent Center, a private mental health treatment facility in Columbia, said Howard residents have a history of feeling the prosperous county is immune from substance abuse problems.

"There is a problem, and if the county executive wants to take on a position, how can one be opposed to it?" he said.

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