Ehrlich can put money behind good intentions, expand drug treatment

BALTIMORE DRUG dealers and former dealers, drug addicts and recoveringaddicts didn't vote for Bob Ehrlich in 2002. Check me if I'm wrong, brothersand sisters, but many of you either have felony convictions, which means youweren't allowed to vote, or you were incarcerated at the time of thegubernatorial election. Others were just "distracted," committing crimes tofeed your addictions, and therefore not engaged in that grand thing we calldemocracy. And even if you were, you were not inclined to vote for aRepublican.


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

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

Just as it would be counterintuitive to think that a Republican graduate ofthe Newt Gingrich School believes America's drug epidemic is more of a medicaland social problem than a moral or criminal one -- essentially, thesympathetic 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 gubernatorialenergy has been devoted to bringing slot machines to Maryland -- but attackingthe drug problem at its roots, providing treatment for addicts and preparingthem to be productive citizens when they emerge from prison or rehab has beena priority. The governor said so in his inaugural speech, and he said it againFriday morning in Catonsville, under a tent on the grounds of Spring GroveHospital Center, during a National Drug and Alcohol Recovery Month event.

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

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

It has been painfully obvious around here for more than 30 years butgenerally ignored until just the last few -- addiction fuels violence andproperty crimes, creates impossibly full court dockets and overcrowdedprisons, contributes to family dysfunction, the destruction of personalrelationships, the loss of work force, the degradation of neighborhoods andthe 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 lessof a chance of relapse when they emerge from jail. Members of hisadministration speak of "changing the culture of corrections," so that weprepare offenders for life after prison and get a better return on ourinvestment (currently, about $24,000 a year to keep an inmate in a Marylandprison, with an appalling recidivism rate of 50 percent.)

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

The Ehrlich administration has been good about maintaining funding for drugabuse, during a budget crunch. The governor is showing progressive thinkingand leadership here.

But here's the thing: We have not reached a point where we can say Marylandoffers "treatment on demand," and it should be our goal. An uninsured drugaddict 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 receivedtreatment, there's been a leveling off of funding for treatment slots, and adrop in funds where they are needed most. The city's budget for drug treatmentcomes mostly from Annapolis, and it dropped by more than 10 percent over thepast two years, according to a research group at the University of Maryland.

Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems, which provides funds so the uninsuredcan be treated, gets about 250 calls a week from people seeking help, but thesystem can't meet that demand. Some addicts tell me it can take a month to getinto treatment. A lot of them quickly lose their will to keep callingagencies, day after day, in the hopes of finding an open bed. A worker at aBaltimore County treatment center told me a few weeks ago that her agency has40 unfunded treatment slots.

Come on. With a billion-dollar budget surplus, the state can now afford totake 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 inand getting clean -- I'll be glad to give up more space in this column forthat appeal (410-332-6166) -- but, whatever we do, we have to have the bedsand staff ready for the influx. We also need a small army of social workers tohelp recovering addicts find jobs and decent housing.

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

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