President Bush's drug czar praised Baltimore's efforts in fighting substance abuse during a visit yesterday that included a tour of a city treatment facility and a stop at a drug court session.
John P. Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, joined more than 75 community leaders, residents and politicians who discussed how federal, state and local governments can pool resources to fight the nation's drug problem.
"People are fighting back. You can see lives change," Walters said.
Along with Walters, Mayor Martin O'Malley and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings spent part of the morning touring Gaudenzia of Maryland, a Park Heights drug treatment center.
Walters was in Baltimore as part of the White House's 25 Cities Initiative, which seeks to reduce America's drug use by 25 percent over a five-year span.
Cummings said treatment centers such as Gaudenzia are vital to a city's fight against drug addiction.
"People are being healed, and their lives are getting better. We've got to continue to do these things," he said as he looked over one of the center's child care rooms.
Gale Saler, executive director of Gaudenzia, said community involvement is a key to fighting drug abuse and that there had been a tremendous turnaround in neighborhood attitudes concerning the treatment center over the past couple of years.
"The community sees us as an essential part of their fight to clean up the streets," Saler said. "The impact on people's lives is profound."
Denise Johnson, a 39-year-old mother of two, has experienced that effect firsthand.
Six months ago, Johnson, an alcohol and crack cocaine abuser, said she reluctantly went to Gaudenzia for help at the urging of family members.
Yesterday, Johnson, who had come from Washington, smiled as she talked about how much the center had done for her and her young children.
"They helped me clean up. My whole outlook on life has become different," said Johnson, who moved with her family to an outpatient house in East Baltimore yesterday.
Last week, the Baltimore County Council ratified a contract with Gaudenzia to treat addicts from its criminal justice system.
The city's long struggle with drug abuse is finally showing signs of turning a corner, said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore's health commissioner.
Beilenson said that according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network, which monitors drug usage in 21 major cities, Baltimore has recorded the second-largest drop, behind Dallas, in drug-related emergency room visits over the past two years.
"We clearly are going in the right direction," he said.
Beilenson said the combination of more funding for drug treatment and a continued police presence would help combat the problem even more.
Viola Bell, a community activist from Park Heights who works with the children of drug addicted adults, said she has seen how substance abuse can tear apart families.
"The children are often neglected, and the drug addiction becomes the parents' major interest," Bell said.