, Newburyport, MA

December 19, 2013

Our view: methadone clinic dispute should be closely watched

Newburyport Daily News

---- — Our neighbors in the city of Haverhill are facing a dilemma that should be closely watched by communities throughout the region -- a controversial plan to open a methadone clinic on the Haverhill-Plaistow line.

Haverhill has used zoning ordinances to resist efforts to open methadone clinics elsewhere in the city. But this time, Spectrum Health Systems, the nonprofit organization that plans the clinic in the busy commercial and shopping district on the state line, believes it has the city over a barrel. In a letter to the city building inspector from Spectrum’s lawyer, the organization says it does not require zoning approval to open its clinic at 100 Plaistow Road due to the Dover Amendment.

The Dover Amendment is a state law that exempts certain agricultural, religious and educational organizations from local zoning requirements.

Spectrum’s letter said the clinic will not only administer methadone to patients addicted to heroin, but also provide educational services such as counseling and teaching independent living skills.

“The Dover Amendment exempts education programs like Spectrum’s from limitations imposed by zoning ordinances,” reads a Oct. 22 letter from attorney Paul Holtzman of the Krokidas & Bluestein law firm to Haverhill Building Inspector Richard Osborne.

It seems clear from the correspondence that Spectrum is not interested in being a good neighbor in Haverhill, finding a mutually acceptable site for its operation. Instead, Spectrum seems to want things its way, or else.

The lawyer’s letter goes on to cite previous instances in which its plans were challenged by host communities. Spectrum won legal challenges based on the Dover Amendment.

Nevertheless, Haverhill officials ought to challenge Spectrum’s plans in court. It is the purpose of courts to interpret applications of law, and each case is unique. According to Mayor James Fiorentini, the city has retained legal counsel in preparations for a possible legal fight.

The stakes here are high. No city should be forced to accept against its will a methadone clinic in a business or residential district.

Methadone is a synthetic drug used to treat addiction to heroin and other opiates. But its use is controversial. Some argue that such treatment in effect trades one addiction for another.

Nor is methadone as safe as its advocates claim.

Methadone was the leading cause of drug overdose death in New Hampshire from 2005 to 2010 and ranked third after heroin and oxycodone in 2011 and 2012, the Concord Monitor reported in June citing statistics from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Methadone clinics are associated with an increase in crime and the drug will find its way into the general population as users swap their doses for cash or other narcotics.

Haverhill and other communities must stand up for the right of their citizens to keep the scourge of drugs at a distance and at least under a measure of control. And while they are fighting this specific case in court, they ought to petition local legislators to set some limits on the use of the Dover Amendment, which has become another example of legislative zeal falling victim to the law of unintended consequences.