Leaders to revisit clinic debate

Officials say they'll craft acceptable methadone bill

March 28, 2004|By Liz F. Kay and Larry Carson | Liz F. Kay and Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

After legal concerns recently derailed two General Assembly bills seeking to limit where methadone clinics can operate in Howard County, a county councilman and two state legislators separately said they will try to craft legislation that will pass muster.

The debate over where to put methadone clinics erupted last summer after residents protested applications to open them near homes in Elkridge and Columbia's Oakland Mills village.

To ease concern, members of the Howard delegation unanimously supported bills that would prohibit clinics within 1,000 feet of a school or residential neighborhood. The House and Senate versions of the bill were referred for summer study when the Maryland attorney general advised legislators in a letter that it is illegal to restrict the clinics under federal laws prohibiting discrimination.

Councilman David A. Rakes, an east Columbia Democrat, said he is working on ways to overcome that limitation, although he would not elaborate last week.

Meanwhile, the bill's sponsors, Del. Neil F. Quinter and state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, said they hope to find a legally acceptable way of rewriting their bills.

"I wish that the bill had passed," Quinter said, noting that that became impossible because of the attorney general's decision.

"You can regulate the location [of a clinic] if they pose a significant risk to the community," Quinter said, adding that "I want to create a mechanism for determining that."

The alternative would be to regulate the location of all medical clinics, he said.

Schrader, a Republican who represents the same 13th District, said she expects to work with state health officials over the summer to rewrite the bill. "If other states can do it, there must be some kind of solution," she said.

But Ellen M. Weber, an assistant law professor at the University of Maryland who has represented treatment providers, agreed with the attorney general. She said case law has been very clear that requiring distance, a public hearing or anything different than what other medical offices must do violates federal disability rights legislation.

"We're hoping it [the letter] persuades the Howard folks to stop trying to prevent these programs from trying to locate," she said.

Last year, Rakes helped lead community opposition to plans to open two clinics, which were proposed for his district. He will hold a public meeting April 13 to discuss the issue with representatives from the Howard County police and health departments and local methadone programs.

The councilman said he visited a methadone clinic on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City last week and was convinced about the widespread need for such facilities.

"Where would these people be without this treatment?" Rakes said.

But he added, "I think this legislation will allow us to continue to provide treatment and not infringe on the sanctity of the neighborhood concept," he said.

That's what Elkridge resident Helen Homon seeks. Last year, a clinic operator withdrew an application to open a facility in a business park across the street from her subdivision, Scarlet Oaks.

Homon felt that the issue was one of location and "respect for a residential community, so that something like this isn't just thrust on a community," she said.

Weber dismissed most concerns as stereotypes. "When people start taking a close look and an unbiased view of what methadone treatment is, you quickly come to the conclusion that restrictions aren't necessary," she said.

If loitering or other issues arise, "you can use traditional policing powers to address those problems," Weber said.

"You can't simply have blanket exclusion based on some speculation that something is going to happen," she added.

Weber said she and other treatment advocates also helped develop proposed statewide legislation introduced during this General Assembly session that would prohibit jurisdictions from restricting clinic locations. The bills, like those of the Howard delegation, have also been referred for summer study.

"It's obviously an important statewide issue to be able to provide services," Weber said.

Western Howard Republican Allan H. Kittleman said he supported Rakes' intentions but wanted to be sure the bill was carefully drafted to prevent chances of someone challenging it -- and the county having to foot the bill.

A recent ruling by the Howard County Circuit Court makes the county responsible for up to $200,000 in legal fees for instituting rules restricting the location of adult bookstores, a business protected by the First Amendment.

"We don't want to put in legislation that's simply going to cost us money," Kittleman said.

West Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman also wanted to balance need and location, but worried about the consequences, noting the Circuit Court decision.

"When we do these types of legislation, we need to take our time and do our best to get it right," he said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.