The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice has opened an investigation into Johnson City’s refusal to allow a methadone clinic to be located within its boundaries. According to an August newscast on Channel 11 in Johnson City, Tennessee, the city’s attorney is preparing documents to answer questions raised by the DOJ.
After the state denied the certificate of need for a methadone clinic to be opened by Tri-Cities Holdings, LLC in Johnson City, that company’s attorneys asked the Department of Justice to investigate, claiming Johnson City town officials have arranged zoning laws in a draconian way that all but eliminates the establishment of a methadone clinic.
As regular readers recall, the certificate of need for the proposed opioid treatment program was denied by Tennessee state officials this summer. In that denial, they did mention local opposition to such a program. The state also claimed that the region of Tennessee had more than enough Suboxone providers to take care of people with opioid addiction. However, there are no methadone clinics in that portion of Tennessee, one of the states with the highest per-capita opioid prescribing and per-capita opioid overdose death rates in the entire country.
The city’s attorney, Mr. Erick Herrin, thought the DOJ was looking for a “smoking gun” such as a statement by a local official that they didn’t want to treat addicts there. (http://www.wnct.com/story/23075304/jc-responds-to-federal-allegations-of-discrimination-connected-to-methadone-clinic) Mr. Herrin is quoted as saying, “ …they are not going to find that the City of Johnson City would ever intentionally look at discriminating against such a vulnerable class of people as addicts who have a disease of drug addiction. That’s not what Johnson City officials are about.”
Oh please. That statement rings false in my ears. I do not think this is the only opioid treatment program that’s been rejected by Johnson City officials. I don’t know if any Johnson City leader has ever been so misguided as to go on record with their intentions to deliberately prevent the establishment of a methadone clinic, but the leaders of another nearby Tennessee town have done so:
From the Kingsport, Tennessee Times-News, 3/18/09,
“The Church Hill Board of Mayor and Aldermen unanimously approved the first reading Tuesday of an ordinance which, in essence, makes it almost impossible for a methadone clinic to locate within the city limits.
Earlier this month, the Planning Commission recommended the ordinance, which restricts methadone clinics and drug treatment facilities to areas of the city that are zoned M-1 (manufacturing). Without the ordinance, methadone clinics and drug treatment facilities would be permitted in any area of the city zoned to allow medical uses.”
“I think we’re all in the consensus that we don’t want it anywhere,” the alderman said (name deleted). (1)
Johnson City and other small Northeastern TN towns re-wrote their zoning laws years ago, when methadone clinic owners began to express interest in establishing a clinic to serve that area’s high burden of opioid addiction. The implied intent of these zoning laws seem clear to me: prevention of establishment of a methadone clinic.
City attorney Erick Herrin says that TriCities’ attempt to involve the DOJ will back fire on them.
It’s hard to see how. After being soundly rebuffed by Johnson City, Tri-Cities has little to lose. Since the Department of Justice is doing the investigation, I doubt they have to spend much time or money proving their case. In an area of the country with one of the highest rates of opioid addiction, multiple attempts to open a methadone clinic have been thwarted. I think the facts speak for themselves.
I have mixed feelings about this case. At this point, I’d love for the DOJ to decide against Johnson City. They so clearly have it coming.
And I worry about the methadone clinic when it does open. After all of this hoo-ha, Mr. Kester had better take care to open the best quality methadone clinic in the entire country. If this clinic is sloppily run, it will confirm people’s bad opinions about methadone treatment. That’s quite a burden to carry and I don’t envy him his job. I’m a fierce advocate for medication-assisted treatment of opioid addiction (thus this blog) but I would not want the hassle of running a clinic in that sort of environment. Every decision the clinic makes is going to be magnified and judged harshly if something goes wrong. It only takes one public case of a misdeed by an opioid treatment program patient to skew public opinion.
For every boneheaded criminal that sells a dose of methadone dispensed by the clinic, there are a couple hundred who are quietly living better lives, freed from the demands of addiction. The public never hears about these patients. With the stigma around methadone, sometimes these patients are even afraid to tell their doctors. They look and act perfectly normal. They are your neighbors, the people that sit behind you in the bleachers at the high school ball game. You can’t tell they are on methadone because at the right dose, these patients aren’t impaired.
I feel bad for these people. How do they feel when they read the mean-spirited and uneducated comments on a website like the Johnson City press? http://www.johnsoncitypress.com/article/109952/federal-investigation-result-of-denial-of-license-to-operate-to-methadone-clinic-in-johnson-city
Patients doing well on methadone must not be made to feel like they are doing something wrong. Yet some patients feel like all the positive things they do in life: working, paying bills, paying taxes, going to church, raising children, etc., are erased in the eyes of judgmental neighbors, only because these patients chose to take a legal, medically prescribed dose of methadone every day, to block withdrawals and the obsession to want to use opioids.
It’s sad how judgmental people are, even with minds relatively uncluttered by actual facts.
1. Jeff Bobo, “Church Hill Commission Moves to Prevent Methadone Clinic” Kingsport Times-News, 3/2/09.