Ehrlich can put money behind good intentions, expand drug treatment

September 11, 2005|By Dan Rodricks

BALTIMORE DRUG dealers and former dealers, drug addicts and recovering addicts didn't vote for Bob Ehrlich in 2002. Check me if I'm wrong, brothers and sisters, but many of you either have felony convictions, which means you weren't allowed to vote, or you were incarcerated at the time of the gubernatorial election. Others were just "distracted," committing crimes to feed your addictions, and therefore not engaged in that grand thing we call democracy. And even if you were, you were not inclined to vote for a Republican.


I've spoken to more than 250 of you during the last three months and, in all our conversations, we didn't talk politics much. But I think I have this about right.

That you might have voted for Ehrlich -- or voted at all -- is contrary to what intuition or common sense would indicate.

Just as it would be counterintuitive to think that a Republican graduate of the Newt Gingrich School believes America's drug epidemic is more of a medical and social problem than a moral or criminal one -- essentially, the sympathetic view. But here's a news flash: Bob Ehrlich cares about you.

It might have been hard to know this -- so much of Ehrlich's gubernatorial energy has been devoted to bringing slot machines to Maryland -- but attacking the drug problem at its roots, providing treatment for addicts and preparing them to be productive citizens when they emerge from prison or rehab has been a priority. The governor said so in his inaugural speech, and he said it again Friday morning in Catonsville, under a tent on the grounds of Spring Grove Hospital Center, during a National Drug and Alcohol Recovery Month event.

Ehrlich said America's war on drugs was the wrong approach; all along we should have been putting more money and effort into stemming the demand for heroin and cocaine rather than attacking the supply side of the problem. (The governor didn't mention it, but America launched its war on drugs during the Reagan administration and escalated it during First Bush. The prisons swelled, mostly with young, African-American men, giving the United States the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world.)

Drug addiction, Ehrlich said, "is the central cause of so many problems in our society."

It has been painfully obvious around here for more than 30 years but generally ignored until just the last few -- addiction fuels violence and property crimes, creates impossibly full court dockets and overcrowded prisons, contributes to family dysfunction, the destruction of personal relationships, the loss of work force, the degradation of neighborhoods and the tarnishing of an entire city.

"[Drug addiction] sentences people to a life of poverty and failure," Ehrlich said.

He advocates "drug treatment behind the walls," so that offenders have less of a chance of relapse when they emerge from jail. Members of his administration speak of "changing the culture of corrections," so that we prepare offenders for life after prison and get a better return on our investment (currently, about $24,000 a year to keep an inmate in a Maryland prison, with an appalling recidivism rate of 50 percent.)

"It's counterintuitive," Ehrlich said, "for a Republican to have these views, but they have been my views all the time."

The Ehrlich administration has been good about maintaining funding for drug abuse, during a budget crunch. The governor is showing progressive thinking and leadership here.

But here's the thing: We have not reached a point where we can say Maryland offers "treatment on demand," and it should be our goal. An uninsured drug addict who wants help should be able to get quality treatment within 24 hours. This is a medical and social emergency.

After a period of growth, in which thousands of Marylanders received treatment, there's been a leveling off of funding for treatment slots, and a drop in funds where they are needed most. The city's budget for drug treatment comes mostly from Annapolis, and it dropped by more than 10 percent over the past two years, according to a research group at the University of Maryland.

Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems, which provides funds so the uninsured can be treated, gets about 250 calls a week from people seeking help, but the system can't meet that demand. Some addicts tell me it can take a month to get into treatment. A lot of them quickly lose their will to keep calling agencies, day after day, in the hopes of finding an open bed. A worker at a Baltimore County treatment center told me a few weeks ago that her agency has 40 unfunded treatment slots.

Come on. With a billion-dollar budget surplus, the state can now afford to take this effort to the next level and provide true treatment on demand.

Maybe we should give the drug addicts out there a deadline for coming in and getting clean -- I'll be glad to give up more space in this column for that appeal (410-332-6166) -- but, whatever we do, we have to have the beds and staff ready for the influx. We also need a small army of social workers to help recovering addicts find jobs and decent housing.

This is money worth spending, a way of fixing the levees before it's too late and we've lost more of our fellow citizens to the drug epidemic and a life of poverty and failure.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.