Action halts again on drug center bill

Treatment advocates fear City Council is blocking effort to ease clinic openings

August 30, 2006|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,sun reporter

Advocates for expanded drug treatment in Baltimore say they are worried that a City Council committee could be blocking - for a second time - the passage of a bill that would make it easier for treatment centers to open.

The city zoning code requires treatment providers to get council approval before opening centers, which advocates argue is unfair because medical clinics can open without such approval.

Advocates have threatened to sue the city alleging violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which applies to drug addicts and prohibits discrimination against them. They have held off in hopes that elected officials would amend the code.

But when they were notified yesterday that Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, chairman of the Land Use and Transportation Committee, had postponed a work session scheduled for today to discuss the bill, advocates said it was deja vu.

An earlier version of the treatment center bill died in the same committee in 2004 when the chairman at the time refused to schedule a public hearing despite support from Mayor Martin O'Malley, along with the city's planning director and health commissioner. The bill was reintroduced in July 2005.

"We've been working on this for years," said Ellen Weber, a University of Maryland School of Law professor and activist on behalf of treatment centers.

Reisinger said he was not trying to stall the bill but that several committee members had scheduling conflicts. He said the legislation has been amended several times but that it will require more work to get the four votes it needs to move on to the council.

"I am a strong supporter of treatment centers," Reisinger said. "We need them."

He would not give a date for a rescheduled work session on the topic.

"I'm not going to make any commitment," he said, adding that he wanted to poll the members of his committee first to see what dates would be best for them.

Advocates said they were close to having the four votes needed to get the bill out of committee.

Recent amendments have helped to appease committee members who worried that their council districts would be awash in treatment centers. One amendment would prohibit treatment centers and medical and dental clinics in areas zoned for small residential businesses.

The legislation would not allow treatment centers or medical clinics in neighborhoods with strictly residential zoning.

Consistency in the city's zoning code is important if elected officials want to avoid a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires that people with physical or mental disabilities be treated the same as other people.

"I think we're clearly out of compliance," said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the city's health commissioner, who is working with elected officials to improve the legislation. Sharfstein is also an advocate for expanded drug treatment. The city has far more drug addicts than treatment slots.

Weber, the law professor, said the city should take heed of a recent zoning challenge in Baltimore County in which a federal jury ruled that local officials had discriminated against a Pikesville methadone clinic when they enacted a prohibition on state-licensed medical facilities within 750 feet of homes.

Baltimore County officials have said they might appeal the decision.

"The city's zoning standards are far more discriminatory than the county's were," Weber said.

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