Drug czar makes odd turnaround on drug clinics


March 04, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Three and a half years ago, Baltimore County's drug czar was down in Dundalk, stunned by the ignorance that filled a room. Here's what Mike Gimbel said after 100 people at a church howled about a new methadone treatment clinic in Logan Village Shopping Center:

"We were brutalized. We could not get one sentence out before all of them stood up and started screaming at us. It was a mob scene."

Had he not promised to ask then-County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen to close the methadone clinic, Gimbel said, "I would have needed security to get out of there."

He added: "We're going to move the program for one reason, not because of the merits of the program, but because of an angry, violent mob. All we were trying to do is help their neighbors, but there just is a denial that they have a drug problem in Dundalk. It's a damn shame."

Though the methadone treatment center had already rented space and spent about $12,000 for renovations and a custom-made security system approved by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the clinic was closed after a few days. Rasmussen took a walk. He had no stomach for the classic Not-In-My-Back-Yard pressure gushing up from Dundalk. It was a sad episode, especially given the documented need for drug treatment in the eastern side of the county.

Rasmussen is two years gone now, but Gimbel remains as the high-profile, media-savvy director of the county's Office of Substance Abuse. However, when it comes to methadone TTC clinics, he has changed.

Last week, residents of Rosedale, faced with the prospect of two methadone treatment facilities opening in their community -- and that probably is overkill -- gave a resounding thumbs down to the whole idea. This time, the drug czar was cheering them on.

"I feel like it's legalized drug dealing," Gimbel told the Rosedale Community Association, waving a red herring aloft. Methadone, after all, is a legal drug.

Gimbel then sounded a warning sure to be the death knell of any drug treatment clinic: The methadone programs, he said, will draw addicts to the area.

The argument might be intellectually dishonest, but it works. Throwing up the image of druggies infesting a neighborhood as a means of rousing community opposition to a treatment center is the equivalent of yelling, "Fire!" in a crowded theater.

One of the residents gave Gimbel a verbal high-five: "That's all we need, is those drug addicts running around the neighborhood."

Given his new stance on methadone clinics, Gimbel should be quite pleased with himself. He has assembled the same forces to fight the Rosedale clinics -- and one other on York Road near Towson -- that worked against his short-lived experiment in Dundalk in 1989.

Why the turnaround?

The three new methadone clinics planned for Baltimore County are private, profit-making clinics. As such, they would not be under Gimbel's supervision the way the methadone clinic in Dundalk would have been. Gimbel has been critical of privately operated methadone clinics, portraying them as sleazy and insufficiently staffed, and holding up as evidence a February "60 Minutes" report that highlighted abuses at Texas clinics.

The American Methadone Treatment Association, based in New York, claims that the "60 Minutes" story smeared methadone treatment with a broad brush. There are approximately 115,000 men and women who are treated with methadone in more than 700 licensed programs in 40 states, Maryland included. As of 1991, there were 18 government-sponsored methadone clinics certified to treat 3,500 Marylanders at any given time. The government's commitment has not substantially changed since then. Official estimates of heroin users in Maryland run as high as 50,000. Gimbel once estimated 8,000 opiate addicts in Baltimore County alone.

Therefore, it can be argued that new clinics offering methadone and counseling are badly needed. And since the government does not fill the need, it follows that the private sector would. Given the serious nature of this problem -- in particular, heroin addiction's connection to the spread of AIDS -- Baltimore County's drug czar would be wise to work with the new clinics rather than against them. And he would better earn his keep educating a denial-prone public, rather than whipping it into frenzy.

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