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State to let county help review methadone clinics Sabatini vows not to act without local OK BALTIMORE COUNTY


Maryland Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini has promised not to approve the opening of any private, for-profit methadone clinics in Baltimore County without local government approval.

"I have absolutely no intention to do that," Mr. Sabatini said yesterday.

Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden said he already has written Mr. Sabatini to oppose two clinics planned for Rosedale. The clinics would open within several blocks of each other. A third clinic is proposed for York Road south of Towson, but no application has been filed.

While making his promise, Mr. Sabatini also made it clear he doesn't want to give local officials veto power over every proposed methadone center in Maryland. The state will set up a procedure to give local governments a say in the review of methadone clinics, he said.

"I need to sit down and work with county officials," he said. "There's a need for the support provided from these places."

Michael Gimbel, director of the county's Office of Substance Abuse, was elated by Mr. Sabatini's quick response.

"We need to set up a system," said Mr. Gimbel, who opposes bTC private, for-profit methadone clinics, calling them little more than legalized drug dealers. Getting the state to block approval for the Rosedale clinics is "the first step for us," he said. Mr. Gimbel has urged Rosedale citizens to oppose the clinics planned for their area.

As Maryland's health officer, Mr. Sabatini said he must "sign and certify" state approval before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration can approve a private, for-profit methadone clinic.

"I'm not going to ram anything down [Mr. Hayden's] throat," Mr. Sabatini said.

The state has never tried to block a private methadone clinic from opening in Maryland. Five private clinics are now operating in the state, one each in Carroll, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and downtown Baltimore. At least four more are planned.

Last Thursday, about 60 members of the Rosedale Community Association voted to oppose clinics opening in their neighborhood. They also vowed to lobby Mr. Sabatini.

Controversy over the clinics erupted after a "60 Minutes" broadcast on Feb. 21 portrayed alleged abuses at several methadone clinics in Houston. An undercover camera showed how a recovering addict could easily enroll in several private programs and obtain a three-week supply of methadone to take home. It also showed that the synthetic heroin substitute issued at private clinics is available illegally on the street.

Private clinic operators criticized the report as unfair, because it only showed abuses at several clinics, while ignoring clinics that operate properly.

Mr. Gimbel said a change in state health department policy is needed to give local governments a say in whether the clinics are approved, and where they can be located. Local governments currently have no role in the approval process.

He also said several members of the Baltimore County Council are considering changing zoning laws to require a special exception and a public hearing before a clinic can open.

Mr. Gimbel contends that Awakenings, the county-sponsored, subsidized methadone clinic in Timonium is serving the need for methadone in the county. Almost 300 people get the drug at Awakenings. If more methadone clinics are needed, Mr. Gimbel said, "I'll be the first one leading the charge."

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