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Despite protests, methadone clinic set to open

May 18, 2001

Despite protests, methadone clinic set to open



By ANDREA BROWN-HURLEY

andreabh@herald-mail.com

A methadone clinic will open in Hagerstown this month despite strong opposition from city officials and citizens' groups.

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The Hagerstown Treatment Center at 217 E. Antietam St. will serve as a methadone distribution and addiction counseling center for those addicted to heroin and other opiates.

Florida-based Colonial Management Group will run the center, which is needed to help "people who want to turn their lives around," clinic physician J. Ramsay Farah said.

He declined to give an exact opening date because he said he doesn't want protesters to gather at the property.

"I think it's very important to focus on the human element," Farah said. "These are people who need a chance. We're going to be there for them six days a week."

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In addition to methadone, the clinic will offer professional psychological and social counseling services, Farah said. He will work at the center three times a week.

Clinic opponents say there is no statistical proof to support the need for a methadone clinic in Hagerstown. Some fear the clinic will fuel an open heroin drug market in the parking lot and surrounding areas.

"We're going to take a tranquil, safe, 24-hour neighborhood surrounding the hospital and risk making it a dangerous place to be after dark," said Mike Nye, chairman of the city's Board of Public Safety.

Nye, Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II and representatives of three community groups gathered unannounced at the Antietam Street site Thursday to voice their concerns to a state health official who was conducting a safety inspection of the building before issuing a license from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"We thought the public ought to have some input in the process because we haven't so far," said Vicki Bodnar, chairwoman of Community Mobilization of the HotSpots crime prevention program for downtown Hagerstown.

Citizens' concerns and input seem trivial to Colonial Management and the state DHMH, Nye said.

"It appears that the state health department has acted in collusion with the owner of the building and the company to stick the citizens of Hagerstown with an unneeded, unwanted drug distribution center," Nye said after the meeting.

Bruchey said the city plans to file a court injunction seeking to stop the clinic from opening if the state license is issued. Mayor-elect William M. Breichner, a current city councilman, said the action was discussed at a council meeting.

The methadone clinic "doesn't make sense so I would expect the incoming council to be just as opposed as the current council," Breichner said.

Farah called the opposition "political rhetoric."

"I guarantee that these concerns are absolutely unfounded. These people are excited and worried for no good reason," he said. "Closing the door on people who need help, who will travel out of their way to get help, is the ultimate in bigotry."

There is no community action that can stop the opening of the clinic because such facilities are protected under federal law, said Bill Dorrill, deputy director of state programs for the DHMH.

Need doesn't have to be established to gain a state license, he said.

The Washington County Health Department has received only two requests for heroin treatment since 1996, Bodnar said.

William Christoffel, the county's health officer, said he supports methadone clinics in general but would rather not see the clinic in Washington County. A need hasn't been established here, and such facilities "tend to act as a magnet for drug dealing and an increase in crime," Christoffel said.

The notion that the clinic will increase crime is unfounded, Farah said.

"Why would a drug dealer want to expose himself by coming to a place where everyone can see him?" he asked.

Security will be provided at the clinic "as needed," Farah said.

Opponents say they believe that the clinic will rely on paying patients from bordering states to stay in business because Washington County doesn't have enough of a heroin problem to support the treatment center.

"Why risk the chance of drawing these addicts to our community, where we're offering a large pool of cheap rental units within walking distance to the clinic, already abused social service programs, free clinics and free meals," Bodnar asked.

Clinic proponents said there is a local need for the center.

Colonial's Development Coordinator Joseph Hodge said the company analyzed Maryland counties in the region and determined there is a growing heroin problem in Washington County.

Hodge cited statistics that included heroin-related deaths increasing from 1 in 1997 to 5 in 1999.

The University of Maryland's Center for Substance Research confirmed those figures and stated that 4 heroin-related overdose deaths were reported in Washington County in 2000.

According to a state report, 453 of the 840 drug-related arrests in Washington County in 1998 involved heroin, opiates or derivatives, Hodge said.

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