Drug Abuse: We All Pay

From caring for abandoned babies to imprisoning and treating adult addicts, all citizens shoulder the burden

WALK off the elevator on the pediatrics ward at Greater Southeast Community Hospital and the financial implications of the drug abuse problem lunge at you in the form of bubbly little Dewayne. He is a boarder baby, abandoned in this hospital by his substance-abusing mother when she gave birth to him more than a year ago. He spends his days in a rolling walker tethered near the reception desk. He madly pedals his feet with hands outstretched for attention from any passerby.

Dewayne was just one of 200 babies abandoned to legal limbo in D.C. hospitals in 1990. Each one can cost hospitals up to $200,000 a year in unreimbursed medical, legal, and social services.

``These known costs [of drugs] are just the tip of the iceberg that threatens to mortgage the future of this society,'' says Thomas W. Chapman, president of the Greater Southeast Community Hospital, the only one in D.C.'s poorest section. Forced daily to look at the financial bottom line of the drug problem, Mr. Chapman takes the Dewaynes of Washington and extrapolates. What he sees alarms him.

Most Americans don't feel directly affected by the problem because its most noticeable impacts are on the poor, minorities, young delinquents, and criminal elements, Chapman says. ``Private citizens should understand clearly that they are paying for the over-taxed government services, indigent hospital care, and commercial retail theft [all associated with drug abuse]. This cost is not the total picture because it only measures the present situation, but it is a big price tag.''

If the human costs of the drug war are not enough to alarm public officials and private citizens, he reasons, then the financial mushroom effect of the drug problem should. ``These are the people you and I are going to pay for in the future, or live in fear of,'' he says, referring to the creeping costs of helping drug-exposed babies like Dewayne and dealing with addicts and criminals involved in drugs.

But, he says, ``In the most perverse way, we have allowed this scourge to be a permanent fixture in our lives.'' The problem is almost as routine as potholes are to the public works department, he says.

``I don't think we've accepted the fact that drugs really do have the potential to undermine our entire way of life in this country,'' Chapman says of the insidious nature of the problem.

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