Mayor Martin O'Malley has renewed his support for legislation that would make it easier for drug treatment programs to open, partly allaying the concerns of treatment advocates who worried he was wavering.
O'Malley sponsored the bills last year, but they were held up in committee by City Council members under pressure from residents opposed to the bills. Treatment advocates recently asked O'Malley to reintroduce the bills but grew uneasy when they didn't hear back from him.
Recently questioned by a reporter, O'Malley said he still supported the bills but hadn't had time to push them because he was concentrating on the city budget. O'Malley dismissed speculation that he had backed away from the bills because they were politically risky and he is expected to run for governor.
"As soon as our budget season passes, we'll probably roll it out and introduce it," he said.
Advocates said they were encouraged but still waiting for proof of that support. They have yet to hear from City Hall.
"We have had no formal confirmation that he will do that," said Bow Brenton, an administrator at Tuerk House, a residential treatment facility.
Supporters of the two bills say they would simplify an approval process that has kept needed facilities from opening or concentrated them in neighborhoods without the sway to fight them.
The city, they say, must also pass them to avoid lawsuits by treatment providers contending that current regulations violate federal law by discriminating against recovering addicts.
At recent meetings, city Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson and his legislative director told treatment providers it was unclear whether the mayor would renew his support.
Beilenson is scheduled to discuss the bills today with city Planning Director Otis Rolley III, who supports the measures, and Deputy Mayor Jeanne Hitchcock.
Some treatment advocates had been told by Rolley that the mayor would not reintroduce the bills and might sign only one of them if it passed anyway, said Ellen M. Weber, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and a drug policy activist. They had also not received a response to a May 2 letter to O'Malley asking about the legislation.
The bills' proponents said they hoped the mayor would follow through on his statement of renewed support.
"It's very important to move forward, and we're delighted that's his position," said Weber. "If he could give a date certain, that would be great. ... It's difficult to [build support for the bills] unless they have been introduced and the mayor is foursquare behind them."
Baltimore needs more treatment centers, Brenton said. Officials estimate that about 50,000 addicts live in the city, but only 25,000 received treatment last year. If the city doesn't reform its rules, he said, "we will be counting the cost in lives."
Brenton said he worries city leaders don't grasp the need for additional clinics. He wants to meet with council members to discuss the issue but was recently told he might have to wait until August. "At this point, we are still advocating for the opportunity to advocate," he said.
O'Malley said his office needs a more effective approach to council opposition and residents' concerns. But despite its potential political risk, he said, the legislation is needed to comply with federal law and expand treatment capacity.
"We do what's right," O'Malley said. "I manage the politics. Part of that management requires a communications strategy. We don't stop making progress because of elections."
One bill would remove the requirement that treatment providers obtain council approval for new outpatient facilities, and would instead allow programs to open in any area where other medical offices are allowed.
The second bill would clarify the city's rules for group homes licensed to provide drug treatment, of which there are about 15 in the city. Homes with eight or fewer residents could open in any residential neighborhood, something the city has been allowing in practice, and homes with nine to 15 residents would be able to open in any area zoned for multifamily housing.
The bill would not apply to the city's hundreds of so-called supportive homes that provide shelter but not treatment. These are allowed to open in any residential area.
Some residents spoke out against the bills last year, saying they would result in treatment programs clustering in low-cost neighborhoods. But proponents argue that the bills would make it possible for programs to open in any part of the city, regardless of its political influence.
"If you can detangle the process, you have a better chance of seeing a more balanced distribution of these centers across the city," said Carlos Hardy, director of drug treatment and community outreach at the Citizens Planning and Housing Association in Baltimore.