It hasn't been easy to open a methadone clinic in the city, and it's about to get even tougher.
Since late last year, Pittsburgh City Council has been pushing for new zoning restrictions for the clinics, which administer methadone to curtail addicts' cravings for drugs like heroin, opium, OxyContin and other painkillers. At least one application to set up shop Downtown has been denied in recent months as the council hammered out just what those restrictions should be.
On May 2, a new ordinance imposing the restrictions finally landed in the city Planning Commission for consideration. If approved, the ordinance would ban methadone clinics within 500 feet of any school, dormitory, park, residential area, day-care center, house of worship and, apparently, a catch-all category: "public destination facility," whose meaning isn't yet defined.
"Even without the new restrictions, it's next to impossible to find a location that complies," says Ken Tressler, regional director for Discovery House, which operates one clinic each in East Liberty and Cranberry, Beaver County, as well as 35 others across the state. "These new restrictions will drastically increase the problem to find a location that complies."
Facilities that dispense controlled substances, including methadone clinics, are currently treated as medical facilities. They are subject to few restrictions but approved at the discretion of the city zoning administrator.
Councilor Len Bodack, who sponsored the new ordinance as chairman of the council's planning, zoning and land-use committee, says the intent is to offer neighborhoods protection from the impact of such clinics. When pressed, Bodack couldn't put his fingers on what exactly the impact is, but he said he knows that whenever a clinic is proposed, "the initial reaction is always generally negative."
Similarly, Mike Edwards, president and CEO of Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, has no first-hand experience with what a clinic would bring to the city, but he objects to seeing one in the Cultural District based on what he said he has heard from colleagues in other cities.
Clinics "do tend to have a negative impact on the surrounding businesses," says Edwards.
In mid-January, a permit for a drug-treatment clinic to be operated on the 500 block of Penn Avenue by Uniontown, Pa.-based Addiction Specialists was issued ... and then revoked three weeks later, based on all the restrictions spelled out in the proposed new ordinance. Owners Sean and Rosalind Sugermann vowed to appeal this bureaucratic flip-flop in the Court of Common Pleas by May 9. "Our application is put in prior to the introduction of [the new ordinance] and it should fall under the old regulations," Sean Sugermann says.
Meanwhile, operators of the city's six existing methadone clinics say that they have seen the demand for treatment surge over the past few years. Jen Ricciardelli, who runs the Discovery House in East Liberty, says her outpatient clinic currently has maxed out at 400 patients and yet she gets many calls a day from addicts seeking treatment.
Statistics on drug arrests may also bear out the potential demand for treatment. In 2004, the last year for which such data is available, 1,117 people were arrested in the city for possession of opium or cocaine, compared to 374 in 2001, according to the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Typically, residents who support more zoning restrictions say that they fear clinics will become magnets for addicts who loiter in the neighborhood, say clinic operators. Yet methadone clinics typically open from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. in order to cater to addicts who come for the treatment and counseling before work or school.
Dr. Melinda Campopiano, an addiction medicine specialist who maintains a local family practice, argues that people who shun those receiving treatment at methadone clinics are misguided.
"Very often these patients are working and living in these communities," says Campopiano, who as a board member of the Allegheny County Medical Society has advocated for methadone. "Under treatment they are able to resume their productive lives. We wouldn't not treat a diabetic for as long as they have a disease. So people have addictions need to be treated, and often it's life-long."
The city planning commission will hear public comments at its next meeting on Tue., May 16. 412-255-2219.