Few argue about need for drug treatment -- but many argue about where

April 14, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

PIKESVILLE WILL not be sending out the Welcome Wagon. Drug-treatment advocates want to open methadone clinics in the Reisterstown Road corridor of northwest Baltimore County, and the community goes ballistic. Who could blame them? The shadow of drug abuse was supposed to end at the city-county line, instead of landing right on people's sunlit suburban doorsteps.

Instead, in recent weeks, the specter of two methadone clinics within a half-mile of each other has been raised, and County Council members and residents have responded with anger, with political maneuvering and, not to be overlooked, much rhetoric that is beside the point.

Drug clinics will bring parking problems, they declare. Or they'll bring traffic congestion. Zoning restrictions are launched as pre-emptive hits. It's not that these arguments are unimportant - it's that they're legalistic distractions that miss the very heart of the dread, and the philosophical conflict it accompanies.

None of us wants drug addicts flooding into our neighborhood. Is this news to anyone? We are now about 40 years into this so-called War on Drugs, which has given us crime beyond imagining, and family destruction, and more people wasting their miserable lives behind prison bars than previously imaginable in a democratic society.

Everyone with an ounce of sophistication knows we cannot go on like this. Prison time for the chemically addicted removes them from society - but only for a little while. In the long run, they create new generations of the dangerous and disaffected, who continue to prey upon the vulnerable.

Thus, everybody agrees that treatment is the way to proceed. But what kind of treatment? Those backing the methadone clinics have offered some misleading arguments of their own. They mention 60,000 addicts - as though those are Pikesville's addicts. The figure refers to the whole metro area's, and the vast majority of it comes from the city.

And they also suggest that methadone clinics do not bring crime to a community - that the people taking methadone as a substitute for heroin addiction should be seen as any medical patients trying to rid themselves of a sickness.

The problem is this: We measure the life of any community with more than crime figures. In the heart of the city, for example, there are now wonderful plans to resurrect the Charles Street corridor, including the area around Penn Station and the area around North and Charles.

But a few blocks above North, there is the long-standing Man Alive drug treatment program. Those who run the program have been good citizens for the last 30 years - as good as they can be. But you can drive through the area and see people congregating on street corners who do not exactly look like the Chamber of Commerce.

They look like what they are: people struggling with their lives, and some of them become prey for dealers who can spot a vulnerable soul at 50 paces, and the daily sight of this puts a chill through the area.

As it would in Pikesville - or any other community nervous at the thought that, if the clinics are blocked in Pikesville, who knows where they might wind up?

"Our concern," says Alan Zukerberg, president of the Pikesville-Greenspring Community Coalition, "is some of the testimony we've already heard. They intend to move 75 people an hour through these clinics. They're for-profit clinics. Any business that's for profit, they're gonna seek a higher client base.

"So you go from 75 people an hour to who knows what? And they say they'll only do it in the morning, but the state has regulations that provisions have to be made for any patient's convenience. So, when you have people doing night work, they have the right to demand night hours. So then you're dealing with traffic around the clock.

"The argument is made," Zukerberg added, "that these clinics don't hurt neighborhoods. We sure haven't seen evidence that they help them. If this was a small-scale operation, like a doctor's office, and there was anonymity - no one would know or care. But these are gas-and-go operations, high volume stuff. And that's intimidating for any community - particularly one that doesn't see itself with a significant drug problem. You bring addicts into a community like this, and you deter people from wanting to stay here."

And there's the nub of the problem: Fear that takes on a life of its own, and causes people to get out in anticipation of problems and leaves gaping holes in a community - empty buildings, and empty places in the spirit.

It shouldn't be that way. If we believe in treatment of addicts, then treat them in a doctor's office, in a community of patients with all kinds of problems - so there is anonymity and not social stigma, and scores of addicts aren't herded into one place, hour upon hour, and communities that are models of civility don't ultimately become models of deterioration.

In Zukerberg's view, city and state politicians should have seen this coming. And, he notes, this is an election year.

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