Drug treatment bill backed

Baltimore police commissioner, others call for more funding

January 03, 2007|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm is among a diverse group of city officials who are backing proposed legislation that would force the governor to spend as much as $30 million annually for drug treatment in Maryland.

In the past, drug treatment advocates have had to compete for funding with other groups as part of the annual budget process. Although advocates would have to submit budget requests for the bulk of their funding, a dedicated pool of money could make a considerable difference, especially in Baltimore, where available services still fall short of treatment needs.

The new funds would come from a proposed $1 increase in the state's cigarette tax, an idea that has been around for several years but has yet to win the approval of the General Assembly. The last time the cigarette tax was increased - today it is $1 a pack - was in 1999 under then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Maryland section yesterday about proposed drug treatment legislation incorrectly reported the last time the state's cigarette tax was increased. In 2002, the tax was raised 34 cents to its current level, $1 a pack. THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR

Supporters - bolstered by the recent election of a number of health-minded legislators - hope that this will be the year their bill becomes law. According to estimates by the state's fiscal services department, the tax would raise $211 million in the first year and at least $170 million each subsequent year.

Besides a boost to drug treatment, revenue from the tax also would be used to expand health care services to uninsured Marylanders and help to fully fund the state's tobacco-use prevention and cessation program. The national Centers for Disease Control recommended that Maryland spend $35 million on tobacco-related programs, but the government allocates about $21 million annually.

"We believe that the best way to make Maryland healthier is to expand health care and reduce addiction to tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs," said Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative, which is behind the tax proposal.

The Healthy Maryland Initiative, as the proposal is called, also aims to help small businesses afford health coverage for their workers.

The drug treatment facet was added last summer, according to DeMarco, due in part to input from Baltimore officials such as Hamm and Del. Peter A. Hammen, a Democrat who represents neighborhoods that surround the Inner Harbor.

"It's no secret that the majority of violent crimes in Baltimore are the result, in one way or another, of the sale of illegal drugs," Hamm said in a recent statement in support of the Healthy Maryland Initiative. "It's also no secret that I believe we cannot arrest our way out of this problem. Instead, we must help those who need and want our help to rid themselves of their addictions."

Hamm, whose adult daughter has battled drug addiction, has initiated a number of police programs aimed at reaching out to addicts and connecting them with treatment resources.

Hammen also has had contact with drug addicts. Late one night several years ago, the mother of one of his childhood friends came knocking at his door in search of drug treatment for her other son. Hammen helped get that son into a treatment program and today he is drug-free, has a job and is supporting his young daughter.

"It shows you the success that you can have if individuals do have access to treatment," said Hammen, who supports the Healthy Maryland Initiative but is also planning to introduce bills focusing on health care access and drug treatment.

Support for expanded drug treatment is growing among Maryland residents. Last spring, a poll sponsored by the Open Society Institute-Baltimore found that 69 percent of voters view treatment as an effective way to help people overcome addictions, and 67 percent view drug treatment as being more effective than incarceration.

A poll sponsored by the Healthy Maryland Initiative found that 66 percent of voters favor the tobacco-tax proposal.

Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley has yet to endorse the initiative.

An O'Malley spokesman has said the future governor is busy "building a professional and competent state government."

Hammen, who has been in touch with the embryonic O'Malley administration, said he will work with O'Malley and his top health officials to shape a health care package.

Baltimore's health commissioner and heads of drug treatment programs support the Maryland Health Initiative.

Under the proposal, the city could receive as much as $15 million for drug treatment programs in the first year.

It is estimated that Baltimore has tens of thousands of drug addicts, but the city is able to provide treatment to about 25,000 people a year. Drug treatment advocates say that with an additional $15 million a year the city could finally come close to providing "treatment on demand" to a majority of drug addicts.

"We think treatment plays a large part in making the city healthier," said Adam B. Brickner, president and chief executive officer of Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems Inc., a nonprofit organization that oversees publicly funded drug treatment programs. "We would definitely be able to spend the money effectively."

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

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