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Businesses, politicians bemoan spread of methadone clinics

A side effect of Baltimore’s notorious problems with heroin addiction is the proliferation of treatment centers, many of them very profitable businesses, in the city’s neighborhoods, community and business leaders said.

The treatment centers primarily provide addicts with the synthetic opioid methadone, which is intended to be a bridge to help heroin users get sober. But critics contend that methadone clinics are not helping users and just perpetuating a cycle of addiction that hurts surrounding businesses and drags down property values in the communities where they’re located. Baltimore health officials estimated there are currently about 24 “high-volume” clinics in the city and that number is growing.

“If we’re going to solve heroin addiction, methadone is not the solution,” said Mike Gimbel, a former Baltimore County drug czar.

During a news conference Wednesday, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced she was forming a task force to examine the issue of heroin addiction in the city. Part of that task force’s purview will be to examine how methadone clinics operate and their impact on communities.

“Our hope is that through this work to identify best practices when it comes to treatment, as well as figure out from those providers that are doing well in communities, what are they doing that we can learn and spread to the other providers,” Rawlings-Blake said.

Benn Ray, co-owner of Atomic Books in Hampden, said he has experienced firsthand problems that for-profit methadone clinics can cause since Hampden Health Solutions Inc. opened down the block from his store on Falls Road. He said days when the clinic opens large number of patients loiter in one of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods starting fights, littering and selling drugs.

Dealing with clinics is especially frustrating for merchants like Ray because they are given wide protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Because of that protection it makes it extremely difficult to prevent a clinic from opening in an area and also to hold the businesses accountable for the behavior of their clients, Ray said.

“If this were any other type of business, and it was bringing people into the neighborhood, that were causing the kind of problems their clientele causes, you would have the community, you would have your state leaders, working on shutting down that business because it’s disruptive to the community,” Ray said. “But because this is methadone, for some reason, it’s perceived as beneficial, and so they make excuses for it.”

Gimbel, a former heroin addict, was even more critical of the for-profit methadone clinics arguing they were making a fortune off legalized drug dealing.

“Wouldn’t you like to have a business where all your clients and customers were addicted to your product? It’s better than an ice cream store,” Gimbel said.

The Hampden Health Solutions methadone clinic at 3612 Falls Road is among the growing number of clinics in the city. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

The Hampden Health Solutions methadone clinic at 3612 Falls Road is among the growing number of clinics in the city. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke expressed concern about the number of the clinics opening near her district. She said the communities in Harwood and Barclay, just south of the area she represents, have made it clear they feel there are more than enough clinics, and that the concentration of the businesses between North Avenue and 25th Street are harming efforts to revitalize those communities.

“It’s past the tipping point and begins to effect the attractiveness of what is becoming a very attractive, renewed neighborhood,” Clarke said.

Despite the mayor forming a task force to examine the issue there’s very little faith among critics that it will result in any meaningful changes to how the businesses operate.

Ray, who was asked to serve on the task force but declined, said he doubted it will result in a coherent plan on how to address the proliferation of methadone clinics in Baltimore

“I don’t know what the city can do. The community by-and-large has been trying to deal with the methadone clinic and the problems it creates for several years now, and the feedback we get from the city and the state is, ‘There’s nothing you can do about it,’“ Ray said. “So if there’s nothing we can do about it what’s the point of the task force?”

Gimbel called the formation of the task force an attempt by the mayor to get some positive press after the city was embarrassed by the National Geographic documentary “Drugs, Inc.: The High Wire,” which portrayed the city as the nation’s heroin capital.

“The task force is a joke,” Gimbel said. “I was in government 26 years, and a politician does a task force when they have no answer to the problem. They want to buy themselves a few months, get a little bit of cheap press and take the final report and stick it on a shelf.”