Though officially classified as ongoing, the government funded crusade known as “the war on drugs,” has largely been consigned to the history books. The war’s successes and failures are unclear. Did we ever declare victory, or quietly swallowed defeat? The absence of well-funded, ongoing intervention ushered in a cold war on drugs. 

For years this socially destructive detente kept the ravages of addiction contained within the boundaries of chronically violent, poverty-stricken neighborhoods. While well-to-do communities crossed their fingers, hoping none of their offspring or loved ones become a statistic, joining the growing ranks of affluent opioid overdose victims. 

The rising number of deaths by opioid overdoses on both sides of the social economic divide clearly indicates this inhumane, perhaps unconscious separate and unequal strategy has failed.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has declared opioid addiction an epidemic. The agency states in 2020 “nearly 75% of the 91,799 overdose deaths involved an opioid.”  According to the CDC, Black opioid users ages 15 to 24 had the nation’s largest death rate increase, an astounding 86 % between 2019 and 2020.   

The urgent mission to address the alarming rise in drug overdose deaths just received a much needed, multi-million-dollar deployment. The University of Maryland  School of Medicine (UMSOM) has announced plans to open the  new Kahlert Institute for Addiction Medicine

The UMSOM has secured a commitment of 30 million in funding to spur innovation into new addiction treatments, better access to existing treatments and prevention.  To meet the growing demand for medical intervention, the Kahlert Institute will bring together leading addiction experts in a shared research space to collaborate and create the synergy necessary for systemic change.

“Last year, 20 million Americans were diagnosed with substance use disorder, and only 10 percent received treatment,” said UMSOM Dean Mark T. Gladwin, MD, who is Vice President for Medical Affairs, University of Maryland, Baltimore.

The Institute is aiming for radical innovation. “We need revolutionary progress in the area of addiction treatment and recovery. The Kahlert Foundation recognizes that to achieve radical innovation, you need to bring together the leading experts across multiple disciplines,” said Greg Kahlert, President of the Kahlert Foundation.

Institute members also will include substance use disorder specialists who understand the daily realities of caring for patients with complex disorders often involving psychiatric illness, trauma, and socioeconomic stressors.

Education will serve as a foundational pillar of the Kahlert Institute with inter-professional training on addiction treatment provided within the University system, as well as to the greater Maryland community. 

Trainees will include community members and peer counselors as well as health professionals and UMB graduate students entering the medical field. The aim is to educate and increase the next generation of addiction counselors and health providers and to create a model that will serve as a national blueprint for community-academic partnerships.

Faculty members also will conduct accelerated preclinical research to identify why certain individuals are more susceptible to addiction. Others will explore the cause of the high comorbidity between substance abuse disorders and neuropsychiatric diseases such as depression and schizophrenia. 

Fetal programming studies investigating how genes are expressed will aim to measure the impact of prenatal exposure to drugs and ways to reduce the long-term consequences.

Clinical studies will include analyzing innovative treatment strategies to determine, for example, how supportive therapies delivered by peer counselors can prevent relapse. A foundational activity of the Kahlert Institute will be to establish a Community Advisory Board, which will include individuals with substance use disorder, community members affected by addiction, and harm reductionists.

“In order for the Kahlert institute’s scientific, clinical, and educational work to have relevance and impact, it must be grounded in and shaped by the lived experience of individuals with addiction,” said Kahlert Institute Interim Deputy Director Sarah Kattakuzhy, MD, MPH.

“We want to reduce death and long-term complications of addiction especially in disproportionately affected communities. Black patients, for example, are far less likely to receive certain medications to treat opioid use disorder than white patients, and we need to find ways to eliminate this disparity.”  

Another major goal of the Kahlert Institute focuses on improving the continuum of care for individuals with addiction. Patients with addictions often face additional challenges in accessing traditional health care settings. Experts will focus on creating a more effective care model to address these patients ‘ primary health care needs and ensure they have continued access to medication like suboxone or methadone as well as psychiatric services for mental health issues.

“Millions of people are affected by addiction in this country, including the child of one of our team members at the Kahlert Foundation. We are hopeful that the Kahlert Institute for Addiction Medicine will discover new treatments that will save countless lives in the future,” says Greg Kahlert, President of the Kahlert Foundation.

Jayne Hopson
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