Survey backs drug treatment


A recent poll suggests that a majority of Maryland voters believe that treatment is a viable alternative to prison for substance abusers and that the state's alcohol tax should be increased to pay for expanded drug treatment programs.

The Open Society Institute-Baltimore commissioned the poll, which was released today. It comes as OSI prepares to co-host a national conference on successful drug treatment strategies that is slated to open this week in Baltimore.

OSI hopes the poll's findings will persuade state officials to allocate an additional $30 million annually for addiction services statewide. Of the total, Baltimore would get $15 million to serve an additional 3,500 addicts annually.

Treatment advocates estimate that Baltimore has about 60,000 addicts -- the highest concentration in the state -- and while the $15 million would be a step in the right direction, it would not solve the problem.

They say that if Baltimore's treatment network had the capacity to serve 45,000 addicts a year, the city might finally reach a "tipping point" in its battle against addiction. In 2005, 23,320 addicts received treatment in Baltimore, according to figures compiled by the city.

"We have come a long way, but at some point there is still just not enough resources," said Diana Morris, executive director of OSI, which is organizing the "Cities on the Right Track: Building Public Drug Treatment Systems" conference. "We need to get those [additional] people into treatment. That's when we're really going to start to see dramatic public health benefits."

OSI founder and billionaire financier George Soros, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and the mayors of Denver, Providence, R.I., and Buffalo, N.Y., are expected to attend the conference, as well as health officials from cities across the nation.

Morris and other advocates said they are encouraged by the results of the poll because they show that residents are know- ledgeable about the benefits of drug treatment, and they strongly support an expansion of treatment opportunities.

OpinionWorks, an Annapolis firm, conducted the survey of more than 1,000 registered voters across the state. According to its findings, 69 percent of voters view treatment as an effective way to help people overcome their addictions, and 67 percent view drug treatment as being more effective than incarceration. Of those who said they knew someone with an addiction, 26 percent said the person was unable to obtain any form of treatment, and 39 percent said the person was unable to gain access to publicly funded treatment.

While the number of slots in Baltimore drug treatment programs has increased in recent years, advocates say the city has not reached the goal of "treatment on demand."

"There has been a huge push in the city to expand drug treatment, and it shows," said Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, who will present a history of drug treatment in the city at the conference. "But there is clearly more to do."

Sharfstein said he was pleased to see that more than two-thirds of those polled said they would support several policy options to improve drug treatment services, including expanded coverage by private insurance companies and an increase of the state's alcohol tax.

Past efforts to change the alcohol tax, which stands at $1.50 per gallon for whiskey, 9 cents per gallon for beer and 40 cents per gallon for wine, have failed, but advocates said the timing could be right to bring the question back to lawmakers in Annapolis.

"If there was political will, we could reach the 45,000 mark," said Adam Brickner, president of Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems, an arm of city government that oversees addiction treatment. "It's all a matter of funding."

Morris said that a major reason OSI decided to hold the conference was to spotlight some of Baltimore's drug treatment successes. She said experts believe that expanded drug treatment services in the city have contributed to a 25 percent decrease in new HIV cases and a 41 percent decrease in property crimes.

Brickner, who has been on the job for a little more than a year, said the city's success with treating addicts is one of the main reasons he decided to come to Baltimore. He pointed to two programs -- one that works with drug-addicted women to help them reunite with their children, and one that works with the court system to expedite drug treatment for felons -- as examples of the city's ingenuity.

"I can't wait to tell them what we are doing in Baltimore because it is so innovative," said Brickner, who will participate in the conference. "It's having an impact."

The drug addiction solutions conference, which is co-sponsored by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the city, will be held Wednesday at the Tremont Grand Hotel and Thursday at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Information: 410-234-1091.

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