Advocates for drug treatment testified yesterday against a bill that would restrict the location of methadone clinics in Howard County, arguing the facilities benefit communities and questioning the need for a state law to address such a local issue.
Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Howard County Democrat, sponsored the bill, which would prohibit a methadone clinic from opening or operating within 1,000 feet of schools or homes. The bill would also allow the County Council to hold a public hearing and pass legislation that would permit a clinic to open within that boundary.
Quinter developed the legislation with Republican Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, who sponsored an identical companion bill for the Senate. A hearing on that bill is scheduled for March 10.
The Howard delegation unanimously supported the legislation. But yesterday's hearing included two dissenters, though none was at previous meetings.
"These are people who should be supported in their effort to maintain sobriety," said Ann Ciekot of the Addiction Treatment Advocates of Maryland, a project of the Maryland chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
She said a methadone program in Montgomery County has provided services for about 12 years, "exactly right next door" to an elementary school, with no problems. "Well-run programs are an asset to communities," Ciekot said.
University of Maryland law student Jeanne Brennan questioned why the issue was being addressed by the delegates. She testified that the bill "is on its face a zoning regulation specific to Howard County."
Quinter said after the hearing that he had checked with the attorney general's office, which confirmed it was appropriate as a local bill.
Delegates also asked for the opinion of the attorney general's office in case the bill violated the federal Fair Housing Act.
Quinter responded that Pennsylvania has an ordinance similar to the one proposed.
The bill was drafted after vehement protests against proposed clinics near schools and homes by communities in Columbia and Elkridge last summer. Although residents were able to repel the projects, many feared that other communities might have to "fight with an uncertain end against putting methadone clinics near schools," Quinter said.
Quinter said a number of people have complained about Howard County's only methadone clinic, which is on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City. People have been sleeping in cars, he said, and drug dealers were prevalent in the neighborhood.
"In these locations, they'd literally be crossing the paths with little schoolchildren going to school," he said.
Stanley Daniello, a Wilde Lake parent of two teen-agers, testified in favor of the bill.
"We do need some restrictions," he said, because "schoolchildren are curious."
Quinter told members of the Health and Government Operations Committee yesterday that Howard County residents appreciate the need for drug treatment but feel commercial areas are more appropriate locations for such facilities.
"We have a drug problem in Howard County. We have a heroin problem in Howard County," he said.
The 1,000-foot buffer would not prevent clinics from opening in "literally dozens and dozens" of business parks, he said. "We actually mapped it" to make sure there would be adequate locations for clinics to open, Quinter said.
"We all realize there's a drug problem. We want to solve the drug problem," said Del. Frank S. Turner, a Columbia Democrat and chairman of the Howard delegation. Still, "you can't put them near four schools and child centers," he said, referring to the plan to open a center in the Columbia's Oakland Mills village.
Turner said that one of the clinics indicated it would serve about 500 patients from Howard County and surrounding jurisdictions, such as Baltimore.
"We think that it's reasonable not to have methadone centers [near schools] if there are other places that are more accommodating," Turner said.