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News Opinion Editorial

Methadone and misdemeanors

For many years, some Baltimore area neighborhood groups have fought strenuously against the addition of methadone clinics to their communities on the grounds that such facilities inevitably bring loiterers and traffic, depress property values and increase crime. Yet it may be time to take at least one of those objections off the list.

A soon-to-be-published study that looked at incidents of crime in Baltimore over a two-year period found that the presence of a methadone clinic did not correlate with higher crime rates. Researchers simply did not find in their statistics what residents have long feared — that patients hang around after getting treatment and either commit crimes or attract criminal behavior.

That's welcome news, and not just for the owners of such clinics who have often struggled to find places to set up shop. Methadone has proven effective in treating addictions to opioids if properly regulated and supervised. It initially replaces heroin or morphine and the like, and then patients can gradually be weaned off their dose of methadone as well.

The more such treatment becomes available, the more likely addiction can be reduced. Indeed, it's reasonable to speculate that if there were enough methadone clinics (and treatment slots) in Baltimore and the suburban counties to help all those who need such therapy, crime would fall in the metropolitan area as a whole. With fewer addicts craving a fix, there would simply be fewer crimes committed to feed that debilitating dependency.

Unfortunately, methadone clinics are often viewed as on par with pawn shops and adult bookstores, signs of urban decay and poverty. Certainly, they do bring patients to the area, but neighbors are often surprised to discover that those visitors aren't all like The Wire's Bubbles, the street-wise police informant, but represent many walks of life and income levels.

What those clinic patients all have in common is addiction to drugs, a treatable medical condition. That doesn't mean that everyone walks into such clinics will then walk out healthy, renewed and free from all forms of dependency, never to relapse. But the therapy does offer a chance to live a normal life that few, if any of those visitors, will achieve without it.

No doubt this one study will not be the final word on the crime-methadone clinic link. For one thing, it's based on FBI Uniform Crime reports that are now over a decade old. And not all crimes, particularly minor property offenses and "victimless" crimes, end up in police reports. Still, there's no reason to believe the basic findings of the University of Maryland School of Medicine's Susan J. Boyd and her fellow researchers — that methadone clinics are not the focus of crime — would not prove just as true in 2012.

Incidentally, it's also enlightening to discover the researchers did find a business that seems to attract crime, but it had nothing to do with methadone treatment. Convenience stores brought their share of crime — likely because, as the researchers note, they simply generate a lot of foot traffic.

Of course, the findings are unlikely to change a lot of opinions in neighborhoods opposed to methadone clinics. That's understandable. The perception of problems can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more people are certain that clinics bring trouble, the more likely that they will. If not crime, then at least a shared belief that a neighborhood is in decline.

But it shouldn't end there. The answer is not for authorities to capitulate to every neighborhood group that opposes a methadone clinic and fights to bar them. Rather, it requires elected leaders to help bridge that gap, find appropriate sites for clinics, advocate for the greater good and better educate constituents on the reality of addiction treatment.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who as a councilman fought so strenuously against a clinic in Pikesville, should be among those leading the charge against addiction and the crime that behavior inevitably generates. Is there sufficient access to drug treatment in his county? Given how few methadone clinics operate there, one can only hazard a guess.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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