$4 million loss puts city drug plan at risk; Dispute: Henson takes money from Baltimore treatment agency, saying he can use it more effectively.


UNHAPPY with the work of Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems Inc., Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III is withdrawing $4 million from the nonprofit group that coordinates the city's drug treatment programs.

"I'm losing the city right now," Mr. Henson said of the drug scourge in Baltimore where one out of eight adults is estimated to be an addict.

"BSAS is not focusing on communities, BSAS is focusing on process. The clinicians seem to have control of BSAS."

The threatened 12-percent loss in the agency's $33 million budget next year has sent BSAS scrambling to find replacement funding.

While Mr. Henson's concerns may be valid, he is grandstanding. He is about to lose his job when the next mayor takes over, and the new mayor will be able restore the funding, which consists mostly of federal pass-through money.

Furthermore, as a BSAS board member, Mr. Henson is very much part of the problem if the agency isn't doing its job.

BSAS, though, is at a crossroads. The agency, a creation of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, is under criticism since Sun editorials began questioning its performance.

Earlier this month, the Baltimore Criminal Justice Coordinating Council announced it will scrutinize BSAS's work. "Too much drug treatment is being dictated by providers without any input from the criminal justice system," the group's coordinator, John Henry Lewin Jr., said.

The end of Mr. Schmoke's 12-year administration Dec. 8 will multiply BSAS's problems. Martin O'Malley, the probable winner of the Nov. 2 general election for mayor, has been critical of the agency's record and philosophical thrust.

"Accountability has been sorely lacking in all aspects of our city's anti-drug system -- starting with the government's responsibility to keep law-abiding citizens safe from the violence associated with the drug trade and extending to the city's responsibility to help addicts break the destructive cycle of crime and drug abuse by every means at our disposal," said an O'Malley position paper.

BSAS's goal has been to provide treatment to all addicts who request it. This emphasis on voluntary treatment has put it on a collision course with powerful officials -- including Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier -- who insist upon providing treatment primarily to criminals.

The O'Malley position paper advocates targeting criminals for coerced treatment.

Commissioner Henson's concern is somewhat different. He says BSAS's inability to give priority to addicts living in public housing has forced him to seek alternative treatment providers in Pimlico, Cherry Hill and Westport.

The troubling aspect of all this is that Mr. Henson never raised his concerns before the BSAS board. Equally worrisome is the failure of Dr. Peter Beilenson, the city health commissioner, to bring Mr. Henson's threat to cut funds to the attention of BSAS.

Those actions underscore the weakness of BSAS's governing structure: Individual members, including Lieutenant Governor Townsend and Commissioner Frazier, have so little faith in the board that important issues often are not brought up at its meetings.

This must change.

With a new city administration coming in, BSAS must justify itself anew. It should start by nominating a board that can re-establish the agency's credibility.

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