The state of Maryland stands to lose $24.3 million -- half of all its substance abuse prevention and treatment money -- because state lawmakers killed two bills to bring Maryland into compliance with federal law.
Two bills would have made those who own or lease vending machines liable for any tobacco sales to minors. State law already makes it illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone under 18. Both bills were defeated this month in committees, with no plans for either bill to be reintroduced.
That means as of July 1, the state may lose the entire block grant. Public health officials are warning that unless emergency action is taken, already-strapped substance abuse and prevention programs will be lost.
"This would be devastating," said Dr. Peter Beilenson, Baltimore's health commissioner. "It's one thing as to what this will mean to addicts. People may not care about that, but what's going to happen in Baltimore city and the surrounding counties . . . if you don't have addiction services available, it will be chaos."
Baltimore would lose the most. The city receives $7.3 million, or half of all its substance abuse and prevention money, from the federal block grant. Baltimore County receives $1.7 million and Anne Arundel County, $1.1 million.
A section of the Public Health Service Act known as the Synar Amendment, passed in 1993, gives federal authorities the right to withhold the entire substance abuse block grant if the state is not in compliance with restrictions surrounding tobacco and minors.
A quickly formed coalition of public health workers and substance abuse advocates from around the state late yesterday said they plan to rally this morning in Annapolis.
Federal officials could not be reached last night.
However, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which doles out the money, has sent Maryland two letters of warning.
One went to Gov. Parris N. Glendening in February and a second, more strongly worded letter, went to the state health department in early March, spelling out the federal position:
"The secretary may make a grant under this . . . only if the state involved has in effect a law providing that it is unlawful for any manufacturer, retailer or distributor of tobacco products to sell or distribute to anyone under age 18," the letter reads.
Health Secretary Dr. Martin Wasserman has asked the legislature to reconsider, but last night, a key lawmaker said the bills are dead.
Del. Ronald A. Guns, a Democrat from Cecil County who chairs DTC the Environmental Matters Committee, said the General Assembly is so frequently threatened with the loss of federal funds if it fails to pass this or that legislation that lawmakers have begun to ignore such threats.
"We get threatened by the feds on a number of bills," he said. "We hear it so often. It is one of the tactics they use."
He said the same strategy was used without repercussions on the vehicle emissions testing program and on a bill requiring that certain signs be placed in pharmacies.
Considering the anti-spending atmosphere in Washington, Dr. Beilenson said that attitude is risky.
"These days are not the time to play chicken with the federal government," he said.
Delegate Guns contends the bills were defeated on the merits. He said it was never clear how proprietors would comply with the requirements to keep minors from buying cigarettes from vending machines, or others from buying from machines and then giving the cigarettes to minors.
Still, in light of the tough smoking ban just passed, advocates expressed surprise the bills were killed.
"It's ludicrous and crazy. I cannot believe that we are subject to losing those type of dollars because of lack of compliance for legislation that is so easy," said Audrey Moore, executive director of Northwest Baltimore Youth Services, one of dozens of agencies across the state that would be affected. "I really think that it didn't pass because people didn't understand the ramifications of it."
But if the federal authorities make good on their threat, the impact is clear.
From latch-key and tutoring programs to classes for parents and summer camps, roughly 25,000 people in Baltimore alone are reached by these federal dollars.
Workers reach out to the elderly, educating them about the danger of misusing prescription drugs. Counselors try to strengthen relationships between parents and children.
"We stand the chance of more youth getting involved in drugs, and the bonds that we're trying to build with families -- we're going to lose that," said Shirley Stokes, a prevention coordinator with Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems, a quasi-public agency that administers and monitors the federal money. "We'll find more seniors abusing prescription drugs."
The controversy also highlights the growing shortage of treatment spots for addicts.
For example, Baltimore has 5,200 publicly funded drug and alcohol-abuse treatment slots for roughly 50,000 addicts.
Since last August, Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems has tracked 28,000 requests for treatment, said Andrea Evans, the systems' executive director.
DRUG ABUSE FUNDS AT RISK
Maryland stands to be denied $24.3 million in federal funds for drug prevention and treatment starting July 1. Local governments would lose amounts roughly equivalent to their current federal grants, which follow:
Anne Arundel $1,089,766
Baltimore County $1,665,511
Carroll County $1,215,534
Harford County $341,845
Howard County $814,151
Montgomery County $842,383
P. George's County $1,386,395
Baltimore City $7,348,516
Source: Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration