Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ending drug addiction in Baltimore, one case at a time

Last Friday, I had the privilege of giving the keynote address at a ceremony to honor graduates of the Baltimore City Felony Drug Diversion Initiative (FDI). The FDI program is part of Baltimore’s innovative drug court system, which seeks to identify offenders with substance abuse addiction and guide them into treatment programs. Started in 2003, FDI offers felony offenders with drug problems the option of entering substance abuse treatment as an alternative to incarceration. This program is a true Baltimore success story, reducing recidivism rates while saving money, and has been hailed as a model for drug court programs that could be replicated around the world.

This initiative was born out of a terrible tragedy. On October 16, 2002, seven members of the Dawson family lost their lives to a senseless act of drug-related arson. Federal, state, and city elected officials, members of the clergy, and the public were enraged and demanded action. In the six years since its implementation, the Felony Drug Diversion Initiative has served close to 340 city residents, many of whom are from the Oliver community where the Dawson family tragedy occurred.

While at the ceremony, I flashed back to my days as a primary care pediatrician in the Columbia Heights section of Washington, DC. Ten years later and I will never forget Ms P – a woman in her mid-forties who looked older than her years due to drug use and incarceration. She had recently been released, was in recovery and was getting her life together. Part of getting it together was bringing her daughter to the doctor’s office for a regular check up. 

Over the course of about 3 years, I saw her and her daughter on a regular basis. It was through that relationship that I came to learn the important role we all play in supporting individuals through recovery. It was also where I learned that, in order to be successful in the fight against addiction, we need to tackle it from multiple approaches. 

Baltimore faces many public health challenges, and substance abuse is chief among them. The Health Department estimates that 63,000 people in Baltimore City have an alcohol and/or drug problem that necessitates treatment.

In my view, the Felony Drug Diversion Initiative demonstrates how a comprehensive public health approach can be used to break the cycle of addiction and really improve people’s lives. As an alternative to incarceration, FDI clients presenting with substance use disorders are required to make a long-term commitment of at least 18-months to seek help for a drug and/or alcohol addiction. Today’s graduates had overcome the hurdles of recovery and successfully completed their substance abuse treatment programs.

Life rarely grants us second chances. That’s why it was truly inspiring to see and hear stories of these graduates who, when given a second chance, seized the opportunity to change the course of their lives. Their achievements inspire us and reaffirm our belief that together, we can build a better, healthier Baltimore.

To see a short video of the ceremony, visit our YouTube page:  

Take care, Baltimore.

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