D.C. tops nation in drug, alcohol abuse

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Local,Crime,Emily Babay
Drug and alcohol abuse rates are higher in the District than anywhere else in the country, and experts say the wide availability of drugs, high stress levels and difficulties getting abusers into treatment fuel the city's persistently stratospheric rates.

A new report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that 11.3 percent of people 12 and older abused or were dependent on alcohol or drugs in the past year, well above the national average of 8.9 percent. Maryland's abuse rate was 8.1 percent and Virginia's was 9.4 percent.

Drug and alcohol problems have long been a problem in all corners of the nation's capital, from drug deals on street corners to college binge drinking to the White House -- even former first lady Betty Ford admitted to a long battle with drinking and painkiller addiction after she left 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Local numbers
Percent of people dependent on or abusing drugs or alcohol in the past year
JurisdictionAges 12+Ages 12-17Ages 18-25Ages 26+
D.C.11.35.521.259.65
Md.8.15.917.36.8
Va.9.47.323.07.4
U.S.8.97.320.47.2
Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Other findings
Some other details from the SAMSHA report:
» Virginia was the only state to report a decrease in past-month alcohol use among people 12 and older, with a drop from 53.5 percent to 50.8 percent.
» Maryland had the nation's lowest rate of past-year mental illness for adults at 16.7 percent. The national rate was 19.7 percent; the District's was 21 percent and Virginia's was 18.5 percent.
Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

"You can find drugs in any quadrant of the city," said George Wheeler, who runs Circles of Hope, an addiction counseling center.

The SAMHSA report is based on national drug surveys from 2008 and 2009 and interviews. It found the abuse rate in the District is down from 11.9 percent in 2002 and 2003 surveys. The most widely used drugs in the District are alcohol, marijuana and cocaine, according to the survey.

In D.C., politicians, lobbyists and others regularly attend functions where "work is socializing," said Babette Wise, director of the alcohol and drug abuse program at Georgetown University Hospital. That makes overindulging -- including to the point of abuse -- easy, Wise said. But because the drinking is tied to work, she said, it's harder for them or others to recognize a problem.

"People will think, 'How can my relative be an addict when he has this high position or she's making all this money?' " Wise said.

Dr. Daniel Z. Lieberman, a psychiatry professor at George Washington University, said stress from those high-pressure careers and poverty can both lead to drug abuse -- and D.C. has large populations that fall into those groups.

In D.C., many people who need help aren't getting it: 8.6 percent of city residents 12 and older are abusing or dependent on alcohol but not getting help, and 3.3 percent have drug addictions but aren't in treatment, SAMHSA found. Those are among the highest rates in the country.

The numbers include people who don't know how to get help, don't think they need it, can't find treatment and can't afford care, among other reasons, said Peter Delany, director of SAMHSA's Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality.

Lieberman said people often end up in the hospital after an addiction-related emergency, and long-term recovery is most successful if the person gets to a drug treatment center within a few days of leaving the hospital.

"That's when their motivation is going to be highest," he said. But Lieberman said that's not always possible in D.C., and patients often end up waiting much longer or go a facility that isn't their first choice.

Dr. Kimberly Jeffries Leonard, senior deputy director for the District's Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration, maintained that "anyone who walks through our doors can get help" and said there was no waiting list for treatment slots.

The District is training primary care doctors, mental-health-services providers and HIV treatment centers to screen people for alcohol and drug problems, Leonard said, because abusers often don't seek help on their own.

Wise said 12-step programs are free and readily available in the District, with about 1,700 across the city, and the hardest part is getting an abuser to realize they need long-term support.

"That's what's going to keep them sober for life," she said.

ebabay@washingtonexaminer.com

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Emily Babay

Digital News Editor
The Washington Examiner