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Heroin Maintenance Study Proposal Draws Fire in Baltimore


July-August 1998

In June the Baltimore Sun reported that faculty at the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) School of Health discussed conducting a heroin maintenance trial in Baltimore as part of a research project to take place in several cities. Relying on the recent findings of a Swiss study, Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Peter Beilenson and several doctors at JHU believe that giving heroin to addicts may significantly improve their health and decrease crime (Scott Shane, "Heroin Maintenance Denounced by Officials," Baltimore Sun, June 12, 1998; Michael Olesker, "Free Heroin a Fix for Drug Problems?" Baltimore Sun, June 11, 1998; Scott Shane, "Test of `Heroin Maintenance' May Be Launched in Baltimore," Baltimore Sun, June 10, 1998).

Maryland officials spoke out against the research proposal, including Maryland Governor Parris Glendening, Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and Dr. Georges Benjamin, the Deputy State Health Secretary in charge of drug and alcohol treatment. In the face of such criticism, Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, who told the Baltimore Sun in April that he supports heroin maintenance programs, has muted city advocacy of the trial. Beilenson insists that no city resources would be used for the study.

Drug abuse experts from around the world convened on June 6 at the New York Academy of Medicine to consider heroin maintenance studies. The next day, public health professionals from several U.S. and Canadian cities met to discuss a possible university clinic-based heroin maintenance study that would encompass several North American cities. David Vlahov, MD, an epidemiology professor at JHU, said that the discussions were still in the beginning stages, but that the conclusions of the Swiss study are very promising. Beilenson told NewsBriefs perhaps eight to ten universities could collaborate with a common protocol.

Swiss researchers tracked 1,146 addicts for three years as they participated in a heroin maintenance program which ended in 1996. A study of the program found that the subjects committed 60% fewer crimes and had improved health and significantly higher employment rates than before participating in the program (see "Swiss Heroin Maintenance Program Declared a Success," NewsBriefs, August 1997).

Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, 210 Guilford Ave., 3rd Floor, Baltimore, MD 21202, Tel: (410) 396-4387, Fax: (410) 396-1571

The Baltimore Sun stories on heroin maintenance, as well as a link to the results of the Swiss study, can be found on the web at <>.