Clinics foresee legal battles

New Balto. County zoning limits where methadone centers may operate

2 Pikesville facilities opposed

Dispute continues over number of residents who need drug treatment

April 22, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

By passing a zoning law, the Baltimore County Council has tried again to restrict where private methadone clinics can operate and sidestep the community uproar that often accompanies such facilities. But as the owners of two clinics prepare to challenge the law in court, it appears that the longstanding fight is far from over.

Baltimore County has long maintained that it has no unmet need for methadone treatment. Private companies, however, continue to bet that the demand for the drug, which is used to control withdrawal symptoms of heroin, remains strong.

Two clinics recently applied for licenses to dispense methadone within a half-mile of one another on Reisterstown Road in Pikesville, north of the Baltimore line. They are the latest in a string of proposals that would have placed facilities throughout the county, from Catonsville on the west side to Dundalk on the east.

No one denies that drug addicts live in the county and that a need for treatment exists. James P. O'Neill, the county jail administrator, estimates that 80 percent of the inmates have a substance abuse problem. Although he hasn't conducted a study, he said, heroin addiction seems particularly prevalent.

"We are not naive in Baltimore County," said Michael M. Gimbel, director of the county's bureau of substance abuse. "There's a drug problem here. We know that."

But residential neighborhoods consistently have rejected methadone clinics, and the county has been reluctant to allow private, for-profit clinics to open.

According to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 14 methadone clinics operate in Baltimore City, four in Anne Arundel County and one each in Howard, Carroll, Harford and Baltimore counties.

The Baltimore County clinic, a public-private hybrid, is in an industrial zone off York Road in Timonium, south of the Maryland State Fairgrounds. It can serve 647 people and at last count had 534 clients, Gimbel said.

Supply, demand

"I very rarely ever get phone calls from citizens or addicts who need methadone and can't find it," he said. "There doesn't seem to be a crying need for additional methadone. The issue of building more methadone clinics seems to be one of convenience rather than need."

Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city's health commissioner, said he cannot believe only 534 people in Baltimore County could benefit from methadone treatment. The 11 city-run clinics have 4,451 slots, and not a day goes by that they aren't all full, he said.

Official statistics show that 13 percent of the clients are from outside the city, but Beilenson said he suspects that many people give the address of a relative who lives in the city instead of their own.

When Mayor Martin O'Malley told police Commissioner Edward T. Norris to clean up a handful of the worst drug corners in the city, 50 percent to 75 percent of the people caught trying to buy drugs came from the suburbs, the bulk of them from Baltimore County, Beilenson said.

"Baltimore takes a bad enough rap for drugs as it is," he said. "I think it's unfair to place the entire burden of the region's drug problem on the city."

The 11 city-run clinics are augmented by three privately operated programs. But Gimbel said he's wary of private, for-profit centers because they are not required to treat people who can't pay. Private methadone treatment costs $70 a week or more. Publicly funded programs charge on a sliding scale based on income and cannot refuse treatment.

James Prell, president and program director of Helping Hand Inc., which recently opened a clinic in Pikesville, said the state prevents private, for-profit clinics from kicking out clients who don't pay without putting them through a detoxification program. As for the need for more clinics, people need to look at the problem regionally, he said.

"It's not like ... addicts stop when they get to the city line," he said. "Pikesville should put up a sign that says, `Please leave your drugs and your crime at the city line.' That's what they want to believe, but it's not that way."

The owners of both clinics have promised to take the new law to court.

The county tried to use zoning to restrict methadone clinics once before, but that effort was struck down in federal court as a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This time, to pass legal muster, the County Council has broadened the restrictions to other types of medical facilities, such as centers for outpatient surgery and dialysis, saying they often cause traffic problems and operate at unusual hours.

Manufacturing zones

Under the law, passed by the County Council last week, methadone clinics would be permitted as a matter of right in manufacturing zones and as an exception in office and commercial zones, as long as they are at least 750 feet from residential property and have adequate parking.

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