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Gaudenzia: Partnering with justice system necessary for effective addiction treatment | COMMENTARY

Men participate during morning meeting at Gaudenzia's addiction treatment center Thu., October 22, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun Staff)
Men participate during morning meeting at Gaudenzia's addiction treatment center Thu., October 22, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Terry McCoy pinpoints his “clean date” as March 15, 2015.

Until then, he says, his life was an unmanageable, destructive roller coaster due to drug and alcohol abuse. But on that day he received what he calls a “gift of change” in the form of a 12-year prison sentence for possession with intent to distribute heroin.

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The judge, though, told Terry he would consider drug treatment for him after three years under the state’s groundbreaking and successful 8-507 program that moves people out of prisons and into state-subsidized treatment centers. In February 2018 Terry was admitted to a Gaudenzia facility in Baltimore.

“Every time it appeared to me that I was already at my bottom, there always seemed to be a trap door,” Terry says. “The pain, shame and guilt were always a constant reminder of my bad decision-making. The drugs took away my love of music, self-respect, dreams, aspirations and goals. I felt as though I was failure at being a human being.”

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At Gaudenzia, he received treatment and graduated from our program. Now, Terry is a House Manager Supervisor at one of our treatment centers, and he has his life back. He’s looking forward these days, and when he does look behind, he says it’s with gratitude for those who forced him to take the stand that likely saved his life.

So, when the Drug Policy Alliance claims that treatment centers use incarceration to profit from the pain of others, it’s wise to think of Terry and the thousands of people who get similar help in Maryland each year. The DPA’s arguments paint addiction treatment in a way that doesn’t account for the fact that a one-sized-fits all approach simply doesn’t work.

Gaudenzia is a nonprofit organization that serves about 20,000 people a year at an average cost of $4,700 per person. We believe that’s a bargain compared with the $50,000 a year it takes to keep someone in prison.

Who are Gaudenzia’s clients? They are the poor. They are the homeless and disaffected. All too often they are people of color. And yes, they are often the incarcerated. We aren’t talking about people arrested for petty drug crimes. The vast majority of our 8-507 clients in Maryland have been convicted of felonies. In short, the people we treat are those who are often down to their last chance. We give them that chance.

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The DPA would have you believe that Gaudenzia wants to fill beds to generate profits at the expense of other options, including medication assisted treatment, such as methadone and buprenorphine. That is simply not true. At Gaudenzia, we take a holistic approach, which has made us one of the largest providers of medication assisted treatment in Maryland.

We agree with the DPA that addiction is a public health issue, but it’s one that demands comprehensive solutions. Addiction is a brain disease. It’s treatable, but it is an illness. We don’t believe in criminalizing substance abuse any more than we would want to criminalize cancer or heart disease. But effective solutions demand that those whose lives are devoted to treating people with addiction disorder work with each other — and work with the criminal justice system.

By treating the root causes of addiction, we work in partnership to reduce mass incarcerations. The DPA believes that legalizing drugs is the answer. We know that the more accessible addictive substances are, the more they can be abused.

Mostly, we know that attacking each other is a waste of time and energy that doesn’t help anybody. It certainly doesn’t help Terry McCoy and the thousands like him who have suffered but who, through programs like those at Gaudenzia, have found redemption.

Dale Klatzker (dklatzker@gaudenzia.org) is president and CEO of Gaudenzia, the largest nonprofit provider of drug and alcohol treatment and recovery services in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Washington, D.C., serving 20,000 individuals each year.

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