Howard task force urges tougher stance toward drug abuse Expanded testing, penalties proposed


Howard County should adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward drugs that includes tougher penalties for dealers, a crackdown by police, drug testing of employees and more drug education in schools and the community, a citizens task force says.

The wide-ranging plan drafted by the 75 task force members is an outgrowth of a substance-abuse summit held by the county last November at Howard Community College.

It will be discussed when County Executive Charles I. Ecker meets Feb. 21 with the county's seven-member Alcohol and Drug Abuse Advisory Board, said Gerald M. Richman, a Columbia lawyer who chairs the board.

"The prospects of implementing the key points of this plan are excellent, because many do not require additional funds but instead call for better coordination of existing services," Mr. Richman said.

The plan calls for:

* Levying a "drug use tax" on convicted dealers, with the money to be spent on fighting crime.

* Developing drug-testing policies for businesses and government agencies, including mandatory testing of all correctional officers and random use of drug-sniffing dogs at the county jail.

The county already has random drug testing of its police officers, but other agencies' employees are tested only if there is reason to believe they have used drugs.

* Increasing police foot patrols in areas with heavy drug traffic.

* Considering the possibility of establishing mandatory prison sentences for convicted drug dealers and requiring that those accused of peddling drugs be jailed until their trial.

* Requiring convicted dealers to do community service work that puts them "within the public eye."

* Urging local newspapers to publish the names of convicted drug abusers, and having such convictions noted on driver's licenses.

* Redoubling efforts to seize the assets of drug dealers through forfeiture proceedings.

* Expanding the Drug Abuse Resistance Education -- or DARE -- program throughout the county's school system. Currently, county police officers teach the program to fifth-graders.

* Forming "student assistance programs" to provide counseling in middle and high schools and providing at least one guidance counselor in every school to work on building students' self-esteem.

* Developing a mentor program for troubled youths and having the Police Athletic League program work closely with such youngsters.

* Encouraging employers to provide employee assistance programs to help establish "substance-free" work places.

* Using Neighborhood Watch programs, community centers or schools to promote increased community awareness about substance abuse and offer drug-prevention programs.

* Establishing a county hot line that would provide referrals to people with concerns about drug abuse.

* Improving and expanding in-patient and outpatient drug-treatment programs for county residents.

Mr. Richman acknowledged that some of the ideas, such as establishing mandatory sentences and expanding drug testing, could prove controversial.

But "a public debate would be welcomed because it is important to generate community discussion over these important issues," he said.

Mr. Richman said the plan reflected concerns expressed by citizens at the conference -- even those on which people disagreed.

He said he personally did not favor mandatory sentences -- except for drug "kingpins," as the law already provides -- but "there was a group of people who said,'We want to throw them in the clink and throw away the key.' "

Mr. Richman said he does favor drug-testing policies in the work place, "particularly in situations where an employee was suspected to be under the influence."

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