City drug deaths at 10-year low


Drug-intoxication deaths among Baltimore residents reached their lowest point in a decade last year, dropping significantly from a record high in 1999 when 238 people died, according to statistics released yesterday by the city's Health Department.

Officials linked the 33 percent decrease to a concurrent increase in funding for drug treatment services -- which has nearly tripled in the past decade -- and a more than 60 percent increase in slots available to drug addicts in need of help.

The new analysis comes as the city prepares for a drug conference organized by George Soros' Open Society Institute-Baltimore. The billionaire financier said he planned to announce today that he is committing $10 million of his own money to combat illegal drugs across the nation.

Soros said in an interview that he chose to announce his contribution at this week's "Cities on the Right Track: Building Public Drug Treatment Systems" conference in Baltimore. The conference supports efforts to increase the number of drug treatment slots in the city. He also said he wanted to encourage cities across the country to adopt a similar approach against drug dependency by residents.

"The overall thrust is to demonstrate that public monies are much more effectively used for treatment," Soros said. "It's more efficient than incarceration."

The report released by the Health Department yesterday is based on statistics gathered by the state medical examiner's office from 1996 to 2005. The figures include all deaths caused -- or complicated -- by drug intoxication, but do not include those caused by alcohol intoxication or carbon monoxide poisoning.

The report shows that last year's 218 drug intoxication-related fatalities marked a 33.5 percent drop from the peak in 1999. The report also shows a corresponding drop in opiate-related deaths, from a high of 298 in 1999 to last year's low of 194.

Meanwhile, over the 10-year period covered by the data, drug treatment funding in the city rose from $17.7 million in 1996 to $52.9 million in 2005. Drug treatment slots in the city rose 62 percent -- from 5,136 to 8,295.

Health officials, standing outside the Glenwood Life Center in North Baltimore, emphasized that treatment, education and advocacy have proven to be the most effective approaches to tackling the city's drug problem.

"Substance abuse and addiction treatment is effective at restoring people's lives and restoring the community," said Adam Brickner, president of Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems, a city organization that oversees drug treatment. "Treatment saves lives."

Belford Elsey, a 53-year-old former drug addict and dealer who started receiving methadone treatment at the Glenwood center seven years ago, said psychiatric counseling and rehabilitation helped him kick a habit that once had him shooting drugs 20 times more potent than street-level. "I just got sick and tired of being sick and tired," he said.

Diana Morris, executive director of Open Society Institute-Baltimore, said she's hopeful that the improved drug statistics will create momentum for public support for increased treatment funding. A poll commissioned by OSI and released Sunday suggests that two-thirds of registered voters in Maryland view drug treatment as more effective than incarceration in helping people overcome addictions.

"My No. 1 hope is that policymakers recognize that this is a very effective way, not only to deal with addiction but also all of the associated problems that it causes," she said.

Soros, speaking by phone from New York, said that a drop in emergency room visits by cocaine and heroin users and a corresponding drop in property crimes in Baltimore show that drug treatment is effective.

It is unclear how much of the money pledged by Soros will be used in Baltimore. Soros said he plans to meet with representatives from cities across the country at this week's conference to begin formulating a distribution plan.

"Baltimore is on the cutting edge [of treatment]," said Frank Satterfield, executive director for the Glenwood Life Center. "And we've been known as the heroin capital of the United States for a long while."

Morris said that while "the job here's not finished," the new money combined with fewer overdose deaths show that the city is on its way to recovery.

"The idea of putting this much money in it is to say, 'Look, there are solutions here, and this private money can serve as a catalyst and help other cities get on board and also begin to see the kind of indicators that Baltimore is seeing,'" she said.

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