|Sunday, January 18, 2004
Legislation would all but bar drug clinics
|It is unlikely the legislation could be enacted soon enough to affect plans for a clinic on Hershberger Road in Roanoke.
By Laurence Hammack
Proposed legislation that would restrict methadone clinics from opening near schools and day care centers is so sweeping that it would bar the drug treatment centers from most of Roanoke.
In filing bills that would prohibit new methadone clinics within a half-mile of schools and state-licensed day care centers, three Southwest Virginia legislators say their goal is to protect young people from the scourge of drug addiction.
But in reality, critics say, the law would allow abuse of opium-based drugs in the region to go untreated.
A computer-drawn map created for The Roanoke Times shows that large parts of the city would be off-limits to methadone clinics if the legislation is passed by the General Assembly.
Forming a mile-wide "safe zone" around schools and day care centers would exclude methadone clinics from virtually all of Northwest Roanoke, which has been at the heart of a heated controversy over the issue.
However, it's unlikely the legislation could be enacted soon enough to affect plans for a clinic on Hershberger Road.
Depending on the final shape that several different bills might take, methadone clinics could also be prohibited from opening in downtown Roanoke and in much of the city's Southwest quadrant, according to the computer mapping program.
Methadone advocates say the proposed state law might do more than just hamper treatment - it could also run afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"If in fact the statute treats methadone programs differently from other health care facilities, then that's a strong argument that it violates the ADA," said Sally Friedman, senior staff attorney with the Legal Action Center in New York.
Five years ago, Friedman successfully filed suit on behalf of a drug treatment center in White Plains, N.Y. The city revoked a building permit for the center's relocation after hearing vehement opposition from nearby residents who feared that recovering addicts would bring crime and drug dealing to their neighborhood.
A federal judge ruled, and the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later agreed, that the city of White Plains violated the rights of drug treatment patients.
There was no basis for the city's action "other than the need to alleviate the intense political pressure from the surrounding community brought on by the prospect of drug- and alcohol-addicted neighbors," the appellate court stated in its decision.
"The public hearings and submitted letters were replete with discriminatory comments about drug- and alcohol-dependent persons based on stereotypes and general, unsupported fears."
The court's landmark ruling has since been cited in similar cases in California, Kentucky and Indiana where methadone clinics won lawsuits against the local governing bodies that sought to exclude them.
A state law that limits drug treatment based on proximity to schools and day care centers has not been tested by an appeals court, said David Davidson, a Covington, Ky., attorney who challenged an ordinance that limited drug treatment centers to one per 20,000 residents in the Cincinnati suburb.
But, Davidson said of the Virginia proposal, "it would seem to me that statute would have a very difficult time withstanding scrutiny."
Any argument that the proposed bills leave room in rural areas for methadone clinics is undercut by the fact that many recovering drug addicts have limited means and often rely on public transportation, Davidson said.
"You can't put a methadone clinic out on the side of a hill or in some hollow that's 45 minutes from the nearest bus stop, because people can't get there," he said.
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The idea of a state law restricting methadone treatment was hatched in September, when news of a proposed clinic in Southwest Roanoke County set off a firestorm of opposition.
Sen. Brandon Bell, R-Roanoke County, and Del. William Fralin, R-Roanoke, who were candidates at the time, held a news conference to say that if elected, they would introduce bills restricting methadone clinics from within a half-mile of any public or private school. House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, promised to push for the law.
Later, when a methadone clinic proposed for Washington County upset the constituents of Sen. William Wampler, R-Bristol, a third bill was born. Wampler's proposal is even more restrictive, banning methadone clinics from with a half-mile of schools and state-licensed day care centers.
Such a law would discriminate against people who need medication to stay off illegal drugs, said Jay Clarke of the Virginia Alliance of Methadone Advocates.
"For the past two years or so I have read article after article how OxyContin has ravaged the SWVA communities," Clarke wrote in an e-mail. "The people wanted answers to solve the problem. Now that a real answer is available, they are against it."
There are no methadone clinics in the Roanoke Valley, meaning addicts must drive two hours to reach the nearest treatment.
Bell, Fralin and Wampler say there is a place for methadone clinics. But it's not close to buildings where vulnerable young people gather each day, the legislators maintain.
Fralin's bill (HB 304) cites society's "strong interest in ensuring that impressionable young people, especially in the school context, are protected from the temptations of drugs and are provided positive, rather than negative, role models." The language appears in an identical bill (SB 312) sponsored by Bell. Wampler's bill had not been filed Friday.
The best place for a methadone clinic, the legislators said, would be a site adjacent to a hospital or other medical facility.
"We're not trying to outlaw methadone clinics," Fralin said. "That's not the goal of this legislation."
While their bills differ on whether to include day care centers in the restricted areas, the three legislators said they are willing to let debate in the General Assembly guide them to the best policy.
The bills would also require the state to notify the affected locality when a license application is filed for a methadone clinic.
Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, has introduced a bill (SB 134) that would require the same notification, but would not set limits on where clinics can locate. Edwards said that while he shares concerns about schools and day care centers, he thinks that is a zoning issue best left to the localities.
"Sometimes when we legislate things like that from Richmond, it doesn't quite fit the needs of the localities," he said.
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The peril of putting methadone clinics near schools is a common refrain among opponents of the drug treatment centers. More elusive, however, are actual incidents of criminal activity or improper behavior at schools that can be linked to the clinics.
Legislators could not cite a single incident, although Wampler said that police have told him they see a general increase in problems when large numbers of recovering drug addicts are drawn to a single site.
But those problems have not touched two schools that some would say are in harm's way.
Alvin Davidson, principal of Galax Elementary School, said there have been no incidents associated with a methadone clinic several blocks away from the school. And the principal of Poe Middle School in Fairfax County was recently surprised to learn that a methadone clinic had been operating about a quarter-mile from the school for years.
"She didn't even know anything about the methadone clinic, so obviously it's caused no issues there," said Paul Regnier, coordinator of community relations for Fairfax County Public Schools.
Virginia has about a dozen methadone clinics, and it was not clear just how many of them are located with a half-mile of schools or day care centers. Although Bell and Fralin had first proposed making the restrictions apply to existing and new clinics, they have since drafted bills that would grandfather in facilities operating under regulations in effect Jan. 1.
If a methadone clinic proposed for 3208 Hershberger Road in Northwest Roanoke receives its license in the next month or so as it hopes, the facility apparently would not be affected by the legislation.
National Specialty Clinics applied for the state license in April 2002. The process has moved slowly, and last month the company was purchased by CRC Healthgroup. CRC is the parent corporation of the Life Center of Galax, which last year withdrew plans for a methadone clinic in Southwest Roanoke County in the face of ardent community opposition.
Proximity to two schools was key factor in the opposition to the Roanoke County site.
Just because there were no problems at the Galax school near the Life Center's clinic doesn't mean the same thing would hold true in a more densely populated area like the Roanoke Valley, Bell said.
"Let's not have an incident happen before we say there's a problem, because then we can't change it," the senator said.
But according to Dr. Robert Newman, neighborhood resistance to methadone clinics is so universal - and so adamant - that opponents tend to seize on any reason that happens to fit the site in question. In cases where there's no school nearby, Newman said, neighbors have fought clinics on the basis that they were too close to parks, post offices and even an off-track betting parlor.
Newman, director of the Baron Edmond de Rothschild Chemical Dependency Institute in New York, said politicians are often eager to respond to widespread fears.
"That's the tragedy," Newman said. "Elected officials by definition are elected by people who feel their interests as they see them are being served. And the easiest thing for an elected official to do is to simply accept the feelings of the electorate without question."
Newman said he knew of no incidents in which methadone clinics have caused problems for nearby schools.
Most methadone patients are committed to their recovery and they visit clinics early in the morning for a daily dose of methadone before going on to their jobs, advocates of the treatment say.
Methadone is a synthetic narcotic that is used to treat addicts of opium-based drugs such as OxyContin and heroin. The medication eliminates drug cravings and blocks withdrawal symptoms.
Some patients must remain on methadone indefinitely, and critics of the treatment question the wisdom of replacing one addictive drug with another. Bell said he does not expect the General Assembly to delve into the effectiveness of methadone treatment, which is prohibited in six states. "That's a different debate for another day," he said.
A number of studies have found that methadone reduces drug use and crime by addicts. The treatment has been endorsed by the National Institutes of Health and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
"The irony is that the main arguments for the establishment of methadone facilities is not the humane goal of providing treatment to drug users, but rather the protection of the entire community," Newman said.
"Because there is no question at all that the community as a whole suffers enormously from addiction," he said. "And when addiction is untreated, we know it's going to continue."
Staff writers Kevin Miller and Ray Reed
contributed to this report.