Joel Prell

Joel Prell is president of Genesis Treatment Services, a methadone clinic. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / April 27, 2012)

Methadone clinics are often seen as the bad neighbor nobody wants.

Residents concerned about crime and other quality-of-life issues often protest if they even hear word of a methadone clinic, which treats those addicted to heroin and other opiates, is considering moving into the area.

But drug-addiction specialists who say methadone is one of the most effective ways to treat opiate dependency are hoping a new study led by a University of Maryland School of Medicine assistant professor debunks concerns that the clinics breed crime and drag down neighborhoods.

The study is the first of its kind that takes a geographic look at crime around clinics, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Previous research only has examined the link between crime and methadone users.

"The concern is that methadone treatment facilities are related to a higher crime rate in the area, but there is no evidence that this is what happens," said Antonello Bonci, scientific director of the institute. "We hope this study will alleviate this concern. I hope people will look at this data and realize it is not a problem."

The research, led by UM's Dr. Susan Boyd and others, found that crime doesn't increase because a methadone clinic opens.

The study used FBI Uniform Crime reports from the Baltimore Police Department to look at crime near 13 methadone clinics for a two-year period beginning in 1999. Researchers compared these reports to crime data for similar areas in Baltimore where there were no methadone clinics.

They also compared crime around methadone clinics to crime near hospitals and convenience stores in the city. Crime was more likely to occur around convenience stores, the researchers found.

"I think there is still a very bad perception of methadone clinics," Boyd said. "There are many more people out there who need treatment, but there are not enough slots and clinics available, and part of it is because of the community stereotypes they have about methadone clinics."

Methadone clinics in the state are tightly regulated by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Still, the clinics' locations have caused bitter, and sometimes politically charged battles, some of which have ended up in court. Zoning restrictions keep the clinics out of certain communities. Owners of the clinics said it is sometimes tough to get landlords to lease to them.

In many of these incidents, residents said that they believe crime increases and that methadone users, many of whom must come to the clinic daily, loiter after getting their dose of methadone to control their drug urges.

There also is debate about whether methadone users just trade one addiction for another and that the clinics continue to feed a drug culture. And even though methadone clinics have tight controls for distribution of the drug, there are cases of the drug's abuse and people dying from methadone overdoses.

Most recently, residents in Southwest Baltimore have protested a methadone clinic opened by the University of Maryland Medical Center, which runs that and other treatment services for the Baltimore City Office of Addiction Services. It was among several treatment programs that were relocated.

University officials said there was no connection between the study and its decision to move the Southwest Baltimore clinic.

The clinic, which serves more than 500 addicts, relocated in January to West Pratt Street after its former building on nearby West Fayette Street was torn down due to its poor condition, said a medical system spokeswoman, Mary Lynn Carver. The new location is accessible to public transportation and close to the university and medical center, she said.

Residents said they were caught by surprise when the clinic opened and said they believe there are too many substance-abuse treatment programs concentrated in their neighborhood. They say they are not against drug treatment.

But crime is a concern. The Southwest Partnership, a coalition of neighborhood groups in the area, posted a picture on its Facebook page of a man sleeping on the street in front of a bus stop. The caption next to the photo: "This should be the poster image for why more rehab services are not needed in the neighborhood."

Also on the page are charts with neighborhood crime data and promises to monitor crime levels because of the clinic.

"It's very frustrating that our community is the headquarters for drug addicts and mental health patients from all over," wrote one resident, Jane Buccheri, in an essay posted on the Facebook page.