Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced the creation of a task force to study the city’s ongoing heroin problems and to make recommendations by July of next year at a press conference at City Hall on Wednesday.


Flanked by Dr. Jacqueline Duval-Harvey, interim commissioner of the Baltimore City Health Department, and Bernard McBride, president and CEO of Behavioral Health System Baltimore (BHSB), Rawlings-Blake announced that the task force would be overseen by BHSB.

“Specifically, I have asked that provide recommendations for strengthening drug treatment options, improving access to treatment, reducing substance abuse overall in Baltimore City,” said Rawlings-Blake about the task force’s mandate.  “The task force will also work to strike the right balance between proper access to treatment, as well as balancing the concern of many communities and businesses who worry about the overpopulation of clinics in some areas.”

The mayor’s description of the task force suggested it would be focused on issues related to treatment and public safety.

“As my administration works to implement more comprehensive reforms for heroin treatment, we’ll also continue our robust efforts at curbing access to heroin on our city streets and holding dealers accountable for bringing these drugs into our community,” said the mayor.

Asked whether the task force would look more broadly at issues contributing to the proliferation of addiction and drug trafficking in Baltimore, such as the city’s desperate economic conditions or public education, the mayor responded that she felt she was clear in her comments that the task force’s would be a holistic approach, but then reiterated a list of issues related only public safety and treatment.

“Are we going to start at Head Start and figure out what happens to a kid in pre-K that drives them into drug use?  No,” said Rawlings-Blake.  “That wouldn’t be a heroin task force, but we are taking a look at the problems as it exists today, taking a look at what resources are available, taking a look at the drivers of heroin traffic, taking a look at how people in recovery are using the services that we have available and to what benefit, and what problems that exist.  We are looking to take a holistic approach to this.”

In discussing the task force, the word ‘poverty’ was not mentioned once, and the mayor’s stated goal for the task force also focused on treatment and public safety.

“My ultimate goal is to increase the availability and the quality of outpatient services and to provide a more robust structure for supporting residents in recovery,” said the mayor while reading her prepared statement.  “The task force will also explore how to better engage the community and promote positive interactions in neighborhoods where treatment programs operate.”

Most of the media’s questions focused on this issue of treatment centers and public safety concerns within communities where such centers are located.  Only McBride addressed the obvious undercurrent of those questions, after they carried over into a second question and answer session with McBride and Duval-Harvey after the mayor had left the room.

“You’re raising real questions but I’ve got to say mixed into this is some misinformation, and frankly in many places, a fair degree of prejudice about the people because they’re not always attractive people, even the ones that don’t act badly, the idea that we have about people who use substances is tainted with prejudice.  It is,” said McBride.

According to the Rawlings-Blake, “there’s no way to make Baltimore a safer and healthier city, without an effective and coherent strategy against heroin use.”

While the initial statements about this task force suggest it could be in a position to advance the way we treat substance abuse from a medical and mental health standpoint, nothing suggested the problem would be addressed more robustly than that.