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Back to Methadone news page

Methadone Clinic Wins Right To Open In Reading –
Court sides with Bethlehem Township-based center.

The Allentown Morning Call, June 19, 2007

by Matt Birkbeck and Ann Wlazelek of The Morning Call

When Glen Cooper sought to open a methadone clinic in Reading, city officials said no, citing a 1999 Pennsylvania statute that barred such clinics from operating near a residential area.

Cooper, executive director of New Directions Treatment Services in Bethlehem Township, filed a federal lawsuit, claiming the city's action was unconstitutional. He lost but appealed, and on Friday, a federal appeals court struck down the state statute, saying it violated federal law.

"The court says you cannot impose restrictive zoning requirements solely on methadone treatment facilities," said Richard Churchill, a Philadelphia attorney who represented Cooper and New Directions. "It was a complete win."

The decision by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia -- which described the case in a 52-page opinion as a "familiar conflict between the legal principle of nondiscrimination and the political principle of not-in-my-backyard" -- ended a six-year battle between Cooper and Reading officials, who denied his application to open a methadone clinic in 2001.

Reading solicitor John Yeager did not return calls for comment Monday.

New Directions offers the only methadone treatment for heroin addicts in the Lehigh Valley. In expanding to Reading, Cooper picked a center city site that already housed a treatment facility for mental health and drug addictions. But city officials, fearful of loitering, cited the state statute that prohibited operating a methadone clinic within 500 feet of a residential housing area, school, playground, church and other facilities. There were 40 to 70 homes in the area.

Cooper said the court's decision will force municipal leaders throughout the state to revisit previous denials of methadone clinic applications. Just last month, officials in Du Bois, Clearfield County, denied a methadone clinic based on the 1999 state law.

"We feel this is a landmark decision," Cooper said. "Assuming it is not appealed to the Supreme Court, we feel it will prevail and make the world a better place for those who need services and the general public who needs relief from those who are addicted."

Methadone has long been used to treat heroin addiction. Of the 46 clinics licensed by the state Department of Health, a dozen are in the Philadelphia area and seven in the Pittsburgh area. There are no clinics in Lehigh, Carbon, Monroe or Schuylkill counties. Bucks has three; Montgomery and Berks counties each have one.

Because the overturned law was based on fears and the stigma associated with addiction and drug abuse, Cooper said, he would not be surprised if the decision eases siting restrictions for other kinds of drug treatment centers.

Allentown has an ordinance that prohibits one drug treatment center from being within 1,000 feet of another. "That is extremely restrictive," he added. "There's really no basis for that."

Sue Miosi, administrator for mental health/mental retardation and drug and alcohol services in Lehigh County, said the county needs and should have its own methadone clinic but has found it difficult to obtain. "In general," she said, "there's not a huge excitement for a methadone clinic opening in my backyard."

Under a contract with the state Department of Public Welfare, Lehigh County must offer methadone treatment to Medicaid patients in need, she said. Patients have instead been referred to the New Directions clinic. And the need is there, she said, noting that 18 percent of all adults seeking drug and alcohol treatment last month were addicted to heroin. That's the third-largest addiction after marijuana and a tie between alcohol and crack cocaine.

New Directions has about 40 addicts waiting to enter the program at its main clinic in Bethlehem Township, which draws clients from as far away as Wilkes-Barre.

"People need the right to obtain treatment, and currently that is extremely difficult," Cooper said. "Entire counties have no methadone clinics."

Despite the legal victory, Cooper said he is re-evaluating plans to open the center city Reading clinic. In the six years he's fought for the clinic, his nonprofit organization bought and renovated a building it had been leasing in West Reading to treat heroin addicts. That facility has no waiting list.

"To operate a clinic, you need a minimum number of patients" to make ends meet, Cooper said. "Having run one for 11 years, I don't think you could do it with less than 150 patients."

Though the court decision should make it easier for methadone clinics to open in places where they are needed, it doesn't mean there'll be one on every street corner, he said.

"We are very happy to see justice done," Cooper said of the decision. "Stigmatization is extremely widespread. Addicts are one of a few groups of people the general public still feels it's acceptable to openly hate."

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