A generation ago, former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke urged lawmakers to consider abandoning the criminal justice model for dealing with the country's rampant drug problem and to focus instead on treating people for their addictions. He was roundly criticized for the idea, and America went on to prosecute a fruitless "war on drugs" that two decades later it is still clearly losing.
But last week, city health officials announced a small but significant victory in that struggle that may yet vindicate Mr. Schmoke's more humanistic approach to the scourge of substance abuse.
Officials reported that deaths from alcohol and drug overdoses declined for the second straight year in the city and are now at their lowest levels in more than a decade. The reason? Expanded treatment opportunities for heroin users and programs that teach addicts how to avoid life-threatening overdoses even if they aren't able to completely break the cycle of dependence.
There's little doubt that treatment can save lives. Two years ago, 281 people died of drug overdoses in Baltimore. That number dropped to 176 last year, a decline of about a third. Health officials say the improved statistics are directly attributable to more drug treatment slots made possible by a $1.1 million federal grant, and to education and outreach efforts such as the city's Staying Alive program, which instructs addicts how to spot the signs of overdose and intervene before it's too late.
The numbers would be even better if treatment were more widely available. Last year, a staggering 74,000 people in Baltimore required treatment for substance abuse, by some estimates. Yet the city could only accommodate a fraction of that number - some 16,000. Facilities that treat heroin addicts with buprenorphine, a semi-synthetic drug that health officials say can help decrease overdoses, have waiting lists of more than a year, and even addicts who have decided to seek help often can't get in.
Despite these limitations, the treatment model remains by far the more promising strategy for reducing the harm caused by substance abuse. Drug and alcohol abuse destroys families, communities and lives and drives most serious crime in Baltimore.
That's why Mr. Schmoke was right to insist that the only practical course for addressing the issue lay in treating addiction as a public health problem rather than as a criminal justice matter. With addiction at epidemic levels, there's no way we're going to make a dent in this problem simply by locking more people up.