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Signs of Hope

By Jackie Powder

Despite the seemingly endless supply of bleak statistics on drug addiction—funding shortages, related crime and health problems and waiting lists for treatment—some large U.S. cities are seeing encouraging results in the battle against substance abuse.

Through effective public/private partnerships, innovative treatment strategies and the work of committed public officials and policy-makers, these urban areas are reporting progress in reaching people who need drug treatment.

That theme emerged from a June 8 conference at the Bloomberg School—"Cities on the Right Track: Building Public Addiction Treatment Systems"—which drew officials from Baltimore, San Francisco, New York, Detroit and Seattle. Participants highlighted their drug treatment successes as well as ongoing challenges.

"We see this as a way to share some of the things we've been able to learn in Baltimore, and what's going on in cities across the country that share our commitment to building a system of drug care for people who aren't able to get the treatment they need," said Diana Morris, director of the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, a conference sponsor.

Baltimore health commissioner Joshua Sharfstein credited substantial public and private investment in substance abuse treatment—including a $25 million donation in 1997 from Open Society founder, philanthropist George Soros—with helping to reduce Baltimore's drug overdose deaths by 33 percent from 1999 to 2005.

Alice Gleghorn, PhD, deputy director with San Francisco's Department of Public Health, said that a city-run soft tissue infection clinic that opened in 1996 to treat drug-related skin infections saved $8.8 million in public hospital costs through 2002.

David Vlahov, PhD '88, director of the Center for Urban Epidemiologic Studies at the New York Academy of Medicine, noted that the medication buprenorphine has emerged in the past two years as an effective treatment for heroin addiction with a lower risk for some of the side effects associated with methadone.

But Vlahov also said there is still plenty to be done in the battle against substance abuse. "Treatment is in short supply, and untreated addiction results in avoidable public health problems," he said, noting that in 2004, only 10 percent of the 23.5 million people in the U.S. who needed alcohol and drug treatment received it.

Conference participants said that future priorities include expanding treatment services for inmates and the mentally ill, and increasing employment opportunities for recovering addicts.