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Arrest is not the answer to helping people with drug addictions | COMMENTARY

Women sit during morning meeting at Gaudenzia's addiction treatment center, which said it is getting fewer referrals from the court system because of the pandemic.
Women sit during morning meeting at Gaudenzia's addiction treatment center, which said it is getting fewer referrals from the court system because of the pandemic. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

If you listen to the viewpoint of some drug treatment centers, they have been victimized because people with substance use disorders are no longer being arrested during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of this, these centers don’t have the steady stream of patients being referred by the courts to fill their treatment beds — and they are struggling financially. The centers are correct that the coronavirus has disrupted the business model for many companies in many industries and left their finances in shambles. But we think treatment centers are putting the blame in the wrong place.

The real problem is too many drug companies depend too much on the criminal justice system for their business — in this case the state’s “8-507” program. Since Oct. 15, Maryland’s courts have placed 233 people in the program, which allows people who commit certain crimes to enter treatment instead of, or alongside, incarceration, according to a recent story in The Sun. All of last year 519 patients were placed. One treatment facility, the state’s largest provider of court referred drug treatment, wanted the state to bail them out, but was denied. Instead, these companies need to find other methods to help connect with people in need of treatment. There is no shortage of people who are addicted to drugs. The number of overdoses has increased during the pandemic. Drug-and alcohol-related deaths increased 9.1% across the state from January to June compared to the same time period last year, according to state data released in September, reflecting the impact of the pandemic for the first time.

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If treatment centers can’t reach people through the courts, there are other ways to find those in need of help. And, in fact, public health experts would love it if the courts were the last resort as they work to move the paradigm of drug addiction from a crime issue to one of public health. In the words of an official with Behavioral Health System Baltimore, the fact that people are not going to treatment through the 8-507 program “is not a bad thing, and it aligns with the shift away from using the criminal justice system as a means to access treatment.” The court systems have a role, and the diversion program has helped some people. We are not denying that. But the courts should not play as large a part of recovery as they do. Instead, treatment centers should build better collaborations with hospitals, emergency rooms, health clinics, homeless shelters, doctor’s offices and social services agencies. There is also some street outreach that can be done in a safe way even during a pandemic. Or perhaps, they could try what the city of Philadelphia is doing. Two years ago police officers began redirecting those suspected of prostitution or drug possession directly to community-based services, cutting out the middleman, in this case the jail, all together.

Decades of criminalization has done little to nothing to stop the country’s drug problem and certainly didn’t prevent the opioid epidemic that has gripped the country. It has contributed to the mass incarceration problem in the U.S., saddled people with criminal records that make it hard to get jobs, and had uneven success in helping people overcome substance abuse disorders. Nor has it stopped international drug trafficking or drug-related street violence that plagues many cities. Those with drug problems also have a greater chance of overdosing if they start to use again once they are released. There are more than one million drug possession arrests each year, six times more than for drug sales, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. And the people disproportionately affected by this failed war on drugs are Black and brown people.

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We have already begun to see some movement away from simply incarcerating those who use drugs. The federal consent decree between the Baltimore Police Department and the Department of Justice requires that police reduce their interactions with people with behavioral health disorders. A gap analysis report of the public behavioral health system done as a result of the consent decree found that overall there has been a decline in referrals to drug courts, which may be related to falling arrests after the death of Freddie Gray.

The way substance abuse disorders are treated is changing every day and treatment centers should use the pandemic as a way to get on board with the shifting dynamics. Unfortunately, some treatment centers have become too reliant on the easy revenue that is earned by working directly with the courts. But this is not necessarily the best option for people trying to overcome substance abuse disorders. These programs should use the pandemic to change their business model and stop the criminalization of addiction.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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