Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) yesterday touted drug treatment as an alternative to prison for nonviolent offenders as he launched a panel designed to coordinate Maryland's fight against substance abuse.

"As regard to treatment, I believe in it," Ehrlich said during a morning visit to a parole and probation office in Gaithersburg. "We know treatment works. The facts are treatment works."

Ehrlich introduced Andrew L. Sonner, a retired judge of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals and former Montgomery County prosecutor, as chairman of his new Maryland State Drug and Alcohol Abuse Council. The panel is intended to oversee the efforts of county drug and alcohol abuse councils that were established by the General Assembly.

The signature provision of the law seeks to divert nonviolent drug offenders into treatment rather than prison. The bill, which called for spending $3 million to set up treatment programs, passed in this year's session with widespread bipartisan support. It is expected to save money on incarceration.

Ehrlich's emphasis on treatment won praise yesterday from Herbert Howard of Montgomery Recovery Services, a for-profit drug treatment center, and other treatment advocates.

Howard said he was surprised to hear such rhetoric from a Republican governor. "Usually, the right side is for law and order," said Howard, who was invited to speak at the event. "But I got the sense that he's serious about what he's talking about."

Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), however, questioned whether Ehrlich had put enough money into the initiative to divert offenders to drug treatment. "I think the initiative is commendable," said Frosh, who is chairman of the Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee. "But $3 million doesn't get you very far."

With Ehrlich's signature in May, Maryland followed several other states -- among them Arizona, California and Texas -- that have sought to reduce prison populations through diversion of drug offenders.

Maryland ranks third nationally in the percentage of state prison admissions for drug offenses, according to a recent study by the Justice Policy Institute, a national group that advocates for alternatives to incarceration.

About 23 percent of Maryland inmates are incarcerated on drug offenses, according to a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. But as many as 85 percent enter prison as addicts or with other substance abuse problems, he said.

Sonner, 70, retired from the Court of Special Appeals in July. A Rockville native, he served 25 years as state's attorney in Montgomery.

Ehrlich's visit to Gaithersburg came during a full day of appearances in Montgomery County. It also included a meeting with Asian American business leaders in Chevy Chase in which he previewed an October trade mission to China.

After his remarks, Ehrlich told reporters that he continued to remain pessimistic about passage of a bill authorizing slots in Maryland because of opposition by House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). "It's a silly outcome," Ehrlich said. "The speaker is the one person standing in the way of a reasonable slots outcome."

Busch said this summer that he would support putting a slots initiative before voters, an approach Ehrlich has opposed. The governor said he has not spoken to Busch recently.

"I'm tired of wasting my time," Ehrlich said. "He's wasted my time for two years."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) talks with reporters after a business roundtable lunch in Chevy Chase. At left is roundtable participant Sue Son.