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Mandatory Busing for Recovering Addicts?

City Council proposal would increase access to treatment

Drug treatment providers serving more than 74 patients could be required to provide transportation to and from treatment sessions under a proposal floated this month by City Councilman William “Pete” Welch (D-9th District). The proposal for a hearing to explore the idea was introduced on Aug. 13 but the hearing date has not been set.

“Drug treatment centers . . . provide a valuable public service and help many members of our communities in their efforts to turn their lives around,” the resolution, titled Informational Hearing—Mandatory Patient Transportation for Drug Treatment Programs, reads in part. “However, in Baltimore these facilities are not distributed evenly throughout the city and have instead become increasingly concentrated in geographically compact areas.”

This overconcentration “threatens to undermine the goals of the programs,” the resolution says, by “leaving broad sections of the city underserved. It also tends to exacerbate the strains caused by excessive patient foot traffic, as the treatment centers threaten to dominate their host neighborhoods by significantly changing their character.”

Though Welch did not return several calls for comment, the resolution was apparently inspired by a revolt earlier this year by southwest neighborhoods after the University of Maryland’s Walter P. Carter methadone clinic relocated to the Mount Clare shopping center. The treatment program, with about 500 patients, relocated right next door to Baltimore Behavioral Health, a private, nonprofit treatment center for people with addictions and other mental-health issues that serves a like number of patients. Neighborhood residents have for years complained of trash, noise, vandalism, and drug dealing they say is associated with BBH’s and other treatment centers’ patients, many of whom reside in group homes which have, in some cases, been poorly run.

Representatives of the Hollins-Roundhouse, Union Square, Pigtown, and Franklin Square neighborhoods formed the Southwest Coalition and staged a rally in March, holding signs proclaiming, “We are the 10,000,” a reference to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s goal of attracting 10,000 new families to the shrinking city over the next decade.

“We’ve had several meetings with Congressman [Elijah] Cummings on this,” says Scott Kashnow, vice president of the Franklin Square Community Association. “We couldn’t get any information at all until we had the rally.”

“Congressman Cummings has been very supportive,” says Christopher Taylor, president of the Union Square Community Association. “But there has not been any change.”

Taylor says the fact that UMD was able to move its clinic without even consulting neighborhood leaders, “with no due diligence,” shows that siting of drug treatment facilities is “based on who you know and political patronage.” Many neighborhood residents say the nearby Safeway supermarket and a Rite Aid left the area in part because of the large number of people loitering, littering, panhandling, and shoplifing.

Drug-treatment advocates say the stigma attached to their business is much more damaging than the reality. In March, a University of Maryland researcher published a study claiming methadone clinics do not increase crime rates in the areas in which they are located.

“I thought the timing of it was interesting,” Kashnow says. “I frankly don’t belive the study.”

For more than a decade, drug-treatment providers have defined “success” in terms of days of drug use, rather than abstinence. Many studies cite reduced theft by people in treatment as evidence the treatment works. Relapse is common.

“If you’re just busing them back to my neighborhood, where they live in a group-home setting and it’s unregulated, it’s not going to do much good,” says Taylor.

Funding for drug treatment is also limited. BBH sold its building to the Abell Foundation under financial pressure, and the state and federal funding that undergirds drug treatment for most Baltimore patients is not increasing.

“It plays a fiscal note, for sure,” says Carlos Hardy, spokesperson for Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems, the quasi-public nonprofit that oversees and funds city drug treatment, “They’d need transportation, insurance, plus the staff to do it. Our FY13 budget is down about $4.5 or $5 million.”

Kashnow says he’s glad his group finally has the attention of policymakers, but he’s not celebrating yet. “It’d be great if they take some action on something, but I see this as a tiny little piece of a much bigger issue,” he says. “I’m only slightly encouraged by it.”

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