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August 2, 2004 - The Times Record (ME)

Study: Substance Abuse Costs $618 Million

By Victoria Wallack

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

AUGUSTA - Despite the growing focus on prescription drug abuse in Maine - particularly opiates like OxyContin - a new study of the societal costs of drug abuse shows that alcohol remains the culprit by a ratio of 70 percent to 30 percent.

The study released today says the combined annual cost of substance abuse in Maine - paid by both the private and public sector - is $618 million, but abuse of drugs other than alcohol in Maine made up only 30 percent of that cost, compared to the national average of 41 percent.

The only category where other drugs surpassed alcohol was in the costs associated with crime. While people under the influence of alcohol committed more crimes that victimized people than those using other drugs, it simply costs more to hunt down, prosecute and punish those who break anti-drug laws.

"A lot of our focus in the past four or five years has been on drugs," said Kim Johnson, director of the Office of Substance Abuse for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Her office did the report. "A lot of our attention has been diverted, particularly to prescription drugs. This indicates we need to continue our focus on alcohol."

Johnson believes alcohol is still the drug of choice in Maine because it is available. The media, she said, have given a lot of attention to the spike in drug overdose deaths in the last couple years - close to 100 largely attributed to heroin and its treatment replacement, Methadone - but drugs like heroine and cocaine are still found more often in urban areas, while alcohol is prevalent in all parts of the state.

The point of the study, based largely on data gathered in 2000, was to put a cost on substance abuse as one measure of the harm it does. Whether it's alcohol, drugs or both, the costs are significant:

  • There were 541 deaths attributed to abuse, either directly - a fatal crash or overdose, for example - or indirectly because of disease, for a cost of $140 million. That number is driven by the lost earnings capacities of those who died.
  • The criminal activity attributed to substance abuse and the cost to police, prosecute and punish those breaking the laws was $128 million.
  • Medical care, including more than 7,500 hospital stays a year associated with medical conditions directly or indirectly related to drug or alcohol abuse cost $113 million.
  • Morbidity, or reduced output from people as a result of drug or alcohol abuse, cost $97 million.
  • Other related costs - the most significant being $68 million in child welfare for kids whose caretakers abuse alcohol or other drugs - totaled $120 million.
  • And, the amount spent on treatment for people with dependency problems was $19 million.

The bulk of the treatment, which included 16,700 admissions into medical and rehabilitation facilities, was paid for by public funds - either state general funds, Medicaid dollars or federal block grants - while only 14 percent came from private sources, including insurance, the study shows.

Johnson said that's because most people deplete their financial resources, and often lose their job, before seeking help.

"People don't tend to seek out treatment until they've had so many losses they have no other choice," Johnson said.

What she found surprising in the treatment numbers was that too little is spent in the early stages of abuse and therefore so much has to be spent on medical treatment.

"We're waiting too long; people aren't getting treated for their illness," she said, and they're winding up in the hospital with end-stage kinds of problems like drug-or alcohol-induced psychoses.

Johnson said her department did the study to help determine where money can most effectively be spent to reduce the substance abuse problem in Maine.

"It's important to know what something costs because that helps us prioritize how you spend taxpayer dollars in addressing different things. Particularly given tight fiscal times, we have to think about what are the costs and what are the benefits," she said.

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