Soros did his part against drugs. Who will be next?

June 08, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Maybe George Soros has a $6,000 shower curtain in his mansion in the Hamptons. I don't know for sure - I've never been a houseguest - but somehow I doubt it. And, at this point, it wouldn't matter much if he did. He's been good to my city.

Soros is a card-carrying member of the global billionaires' club and, if he was so inclined, he could spend all of his time acquiring more wealth and property, indulging himself, and grossing everyone out.

Instead, he's been pushing for social and political progress around the world and, in the midst of all that, he's given millions of dollars to help Baltimore recover from an epoch of drug addiction, violence and poverty.

He flew into town again yesterday to add more dollars to his nearly decade-long commitment to taking the Harm out of Charm City.

Certainly there are other philanthropies and foundations that have given much to make up for what the federal and state governments could not, or would not, deliver during a long period of economic growth. (Maryland is the third-wealthiest state in the country, but its largest city remains one of the nation's poorest, most violent and most heroin-addicted.) It's hard to imagine Baltimore achieving any social, economic, health and educational progress without these foundations.

But when historians look back at Baltimore's long, debilitating cycle of drug addiction - and how we finally got out of it - they will likely refer to the decade since 1997 as the Soros years, a time when a Hungarian-born billionaire put his money into the city's effort to wake up from its heroin-induced nightmare.

(These will also be known as the Weinberg years, the period when the late Harry Weinberg's millions went to help a city that suffered from his neglect as a reclusive property owner who sat on his holdings for decades. He devoted most of his life to making money. The public good was government's business, Weinberg felt, not his, The Evening Sun reported at his death in 1990.)

We still have not reached the tipping point in this struggle over drug addiction, but it is at least starting to feel that way.

Drug overdose deaths are at a 10-year low, the city Health Department reported Tuesday.

Credit, in part, goes to a Soros-funded program that distributes the anti-overdose medication, Narcan, to heroin addicts and trains them to use it. After training, the addicts get several doses of the medicine as well as the syringes they need to inject it.

Like many such imaginative initiatives, the program drew some criticism at first. Now it gets credit for keeping addicts alive so they can get treatment for their sickness.

This is where Soros has been most bullish in his approach to Baltimore - providing the medical treatment that until recent years was sorely lacking.

You have to go back to the time of Richard Milhous Nixon to find national leadership enlightened enough to believe that we could not arrest our way of this problem. The Nixon administration understood that the way to stop the nation's quickly spreading drug problem was through treatment, not incarceration.

But that movement died a political death, Nixon went into exile in 1974, and heroin and cocaine addiction went off the charts.

By the time Ronald Reagan was president, a decade later, we were declaring war on drugs, increasing funds for drug interdiction and prisons, filling the prisons, building more of them and filling those. The war escalated during the administrations of the elder Bush and Clinton. Baltimore, burdened with thousands of uninsured addicts and a violent heroin-and-crack commerce, went begging for treatment funds through the 1980s and 1990s.

Soros arrived on the scene in the late 1990s, after accumulating a massive amount of personal wealth and investment funds with assets in the billions. He pledged $25 million to help Baltimore make a dent in a drug addiction problem that, by some estimates, infested one out of every 10 citizens.

Since then, Soros' investment in Baltimore's social progress has risen to $50 million, more nonprofits have joined the effort and the state government has channeled millions of dollars into treatment slots.

According to Soros' Open Society Institute, the city last year had about 2,600 more publicly funded treatment slots than it did in 1997. Funding for the treatment system in the city has increased by more than $30 million annually since then, and the number of men and women getting into treatment rose from 18,449 in 1997 to 28,672 in 2005.

All good.

But still not enough.

Still not treatment on demand.

Still not the tipping point.

Tens of thousands of citizens are still unable to get into treatment when the spark for change ignites in their heart. They call hot lines for help and are told to keep calling back; maybe a slot will open up for them tomorrow, or next week, or next month.

We still spend way too much money on incarceration rather than on treatment.

You just know that someone somewhere in America today sits at a computer drafting up building plans for a new prison, when he should be designing a hospital for drug addicts.

We should increase funding for the diversionary drug-treatment court system throughout the state. We should open up some old buildings at Spring Grove and get more addicts off the street and into treatment. City officials say they could easily use another 3,500 treatment slots a year - if they only had the $15 million needed to pay for them.

We'd ask George Soros, but I'd say he's done his part already.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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