- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 4, 2006

BALTIMORE (AP) — A majority of Maryland voters think drug abusers should get treatment instead of jail time and that the state should raise taxes on alcohol to pay for expanded treatment, said a poll released yesterday.

The Open Society Institute-Baltimore (OSI), which commissioned the poll, hopes its findings will persuade state officials to provide an additional $30 million a year for addiction services statewide. Baltimore would get about half that money to serve an additional 3,500 addicts annually.

Treatment advocates estimate that Baltimore alone has about 60,000 addicts. They say that if the city’s treatment network had the capacity to serve 45,000 of them every year, the city might reach a “tipping point” in its battle against addiction.

Last year, 23,320 addicts received treatment in Baltimore, according to statistics compiled by the city.

“We have come a long way, but at some point there is still just not enough resources,” said Diana Morris, executive director of OSI. “We need to get those [additional] people into treatment. That’s when we’re really going to start to see dramatic public health benefits.”

OSI is preparing to co-host a national conference on successful drug strategies, called “Cities on the Right Track: Building Public Drug Treatment Systems,” this week in Baltimore.

OSI founder and billionaire financier George Soros, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and the mayors of Denver, Providence, R.I., and Buffalo, N.Y., are expected to attend the conference, along with health officials from many other cities.

Miss Morris and other advocates said the poll shows that residents understand the benefits of drug treatment and that they support an expansion of treatment opportunities.

Annapolis-based OpinionWorks conducted the survey of more than 1,000 registered voters across the state. It found that 69 percent of voters think treatment is an effective way to help people overcome their addictions, and 67 percent view drug treatment as more effective than incarceration.

Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein said he was pleased to see that more than two-thirds of those polled indicated that they would support several policy options to improve drug treatment services, including an increase in the state’s alcohol tax.

The tax stands at $1.50 a gallon for whiskey, 9 cents a gallon for beer and 40 cents per gallon for wine. Past efforts to change the tax have failed, but advocates say the timing could be right to raise the issue again with lawmakers in Annapolis.

“If there was political will, we could reach the 45,000 mark,” said Adam Brickner, president of Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems, an arm of city government that oversees addiction treatment. “It’s all a matter of funding.”

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