A proposed methadone clinic in Roanoke County could become new turf for opportunistic drug dealers, U.S. Attorney John Brownlee said Tuesday.
"There may very well be an increase in crime, and there may very well be an increase in drug trafficking," Brownlee told the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors, which is fighting plans for a methadone clinic at Colonial Avenue and Ogden Road.
Citing anecdotal evidence that included his own experience as a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., Brownlee said drug dealers often target methadone clinics on the assumption that they can easily tempt recovering addicts into becoming users again.
"The drug addicts are vulnerable when they're out there waiting for the clinic to open, because that's where the dealers will go," said Brownlee, who oversees federal prosecutions in the western half of Virginia.
Brownlee did not take issue with the medical effectiveness of methadone, which a Galax drug treatment center wants to make available in the Roanoke Valley for people addicted to opium-based drugs such as OxyContin and heroin.
"It's clear that people with addictions need help," he said. "Our animosity and anger should be focused on the drug dealers and not those who are addicted."
Anyone charged with dealing drugs at a methadone clinic could be prosecuted in federal court, Brownlee said, where they would face strict laws that include mandatory minimum sentences and property forfeiture provisions.
But after his presentation to the board, Brownlee acknowledged that in Galax and Tazewell County - where the Life Center of Galax operates the only two methadone clinics in Southwest Virginia - police say they have not encountered problems with drug dealing around the clinics.
The one case of suspected drug dealing turned out to be unfounded, Life Center officials have said, and Galax Police Chief Rick Clark has confirmed that the clinic is not a problem for law enforcement.
It may be that police and clinic officials have worked effectively in Galax to prevent possible problems, Brownlee said. But, he said, his intent Tuesday was to warn Roanoke County officials about what could happen here.
His message was warmly received by board members, who have heard from angry residents concerned that the clinic will bring crime, traffic congestion and decreased property values to Southwest Roanoke County.
"You have just reinforced what I already suspected," Cave Spring Supervisor Fuzzy Minnix told Brownlee.
The board took no action Tuesday, and Chairman Joe McNamara said the supervisors were "not especially talkative" about the Life Center's proposal because the issue is likely to wind up in court.
After first informing the Life Center that a methadone clinic falls within the definition of a medical office - which is allowed by the zoning of the Colonial Avenue site - the county later changed its interpretation of the ordinance and denied the center a business license.
The Life Center, which said after the ruling that it must "look at pursuing our rights for the Colonial Avenue site," has until Oct. 30 to appeal the denial to the Board of Zoning Appeals.
While Brownlee's concerns were from a law enforcement perspective, others have questioned the medical effectiveness of methadone.
Avenues to Recovery, a private drug treatment center on Walnut Avenue in Roanoke, earlier this year began offering an alternative to methadone that it says is a faster and more effective way for opioid addicts to get clean.
The key aspect of the program is a short-term detoxification period in which patients receive Subutex, a form of the narcotic buprenorphine, on a daily basis for just two to four weeks - as opposed to the usual two-year treatment period for methadone patients.
"We just don't see the long-term benefits of people being on methadone," said Hannah Lloyd, program director at Avenues to Recovery.
The facility began offering Subutex treatment in July, and so far about 20 people have completed the program, Lloyd said.
But with a capacity of 30 Subutex patients, the Walnut Avenue facility cannot accommodate the need for opioid treatment that the Life Center says exists in the Roanoke Valley. About 75 people from the area are driving every day to Galax for treatment, the Life Center has said, and a methadone clinic here could serve as many as 300 patients.