|Sunday, January 04, 2004
Legislators plan to submit bills restricting methadone clinics
|The bill would not allow a methadone clinic to locate within a half-mile of a school and would require notification to the locality where one is planned.
By Laurence Hammack
First there was community agitation, then the threat of litigation, and now proposed legislation.
Such has been the reaction in the past four months to proposed methadone clinics in the Roanoke Valley.
When the General Assembly convenes next week , two legislators plan to submit bills that would prohibit methadone clinics from opening within a half-mile of a school. Legislation proposed by Sen.-elect Brandon Bell, R-Roanoke County, and Del.-elect William Fralin, R-Roanoke, would also require the state agency that regulates drug treatment centers to notify the jurisdiction where a clinic is planned within 15 days after an application for a state license is filed.
Bell and Fralin suggested the legislation as candidates in September, when a planned methadone clinic in Roanoke County near Green Valley Elementary School stirred up strong neighborhood opposition.
Although those plans were later dropped, Bell and Fralin said last week that the law is still needed.
A second clinic proposed for Hershberger Road in Roanoke is within a half-mile of William Ruffner Middle School. But because the clinic could be in operation before any law might take effect, it's unclear if the clinic would be affected if the bill passes.
In both the city and county, meeting zoning compliance and obtaining a business license from the local governing body has been a key hurdle for the clinics.
"I don't believe the General Assembly has a role in legislating zoning criteria; that is best done by local government," Fralin said. "But it should be in the business of regulating the distribution of controlled substances."
In September, Bell and Fralin said a law barring methadone clinics within a half-mile of schools could be applied retroactively to existing facilities. They have since rethought that issue and drafted a bill that would apply only to new clinics.
"I'm not sure it's fair to change the rules in the middle of the game," Fralin said.
The bill states that effective Jan. 1, 2004, methadone clinics applying for a state license will not be allowed to locate within a half-mile of a school.
"The tricky thing," Bell said, "is when they are in the middle of the licensing process." That is the case with National Specialty Clinics, which applied for a state license in April 2002 for the Hershberger Road site but has yet to receive approval.
Although proximity to schools has been a key aspect of the methadone controversy, opponents have not cited any specific problems in other areas where students and recovering drug addicts have occupied nearby buildings. The principal of Galax Elementary School, which is within a few blocks of a clinic operated by the Life Center of Galax, said in September that the school has had no problems associated with the clinic.
Restricting the location of methadone clinics could jeopardize much-needed treatment in the Roanoke region, where many addicts find themselves in a gap that stretches from Charlottesville to Galax, according to Jay Clarke, program manager of the Virginia Alliance of Methadone Advocates.
"There is definitely a need in the area," Clarke said. "I receive calls all the time from people seeking help. It's time to close the gap."
A second part of the legislation, which would give the state Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services 15 days to notify the affected local governing body after a license application is made by a methadone clinic, was requested by members of Roanoke City Council.
City officials have expressed frustration over not knowing about plans for the Hershberger Road clinic for more than a year after the license application was filed with the state.