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Ruling on drug clinics worries officials
Court decision said to make location restrictions illegal
Thursday, July 12, 2007
By David Guo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Hampton officials are worried that a federal court ruling last month will revive efforts by a local couple to open a drug rehabilitation clinic in the township.
The federal ruling involved a drug treatment facility in Reading and rejected a Pennsylvania law that restricts where such clinics can be located.
Citing that state law, Hampton council last year was able to block Addiction Specialists Inc. from opening a methadone clinic in Hampton because the clinic would have been within 500 feet of the Depreciation Lands Museum, which qualified as a park, and an intern-staffed travel agency, which qualified as a school.
The site for the proposed clinic, near Hampton Plaza on Route 8, is no longer available, said Roz Sugarmann, who owns Addiction Specialists with her husband, Sean. But, she said, she still intends to open a clinic in the Pittsburgh area.
Hampton's efforts to block the clinic prompted several legal actions by the Sugarmanns, the most recent of which was a Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission hearing in February.
A ruling from the commission is expected by the end of the year, but Hampton council President Victor Son is worried that the state commission's role has become moot.
Mr. Son said the township solicitor has advised council that the U.S. Third Circuit Court ruling last month invalidated the state law, called Act 10, and its 500-foot rule, saying it is discriminatory against drug addicts.
Although the federal case was brought by another clinic operator in another town, Mr. Son said "the nullification of the statute impacts every municipality in the state."
"Since Hampton council relied on the '500-foot rule' in its decision to not allow the location of the methadone clinic," he explained, "the fact that the statute has been nullified appears to throw all facts in the case out."
Ms. Sugarmann, who operates a methadone clinic in Uniontown, Fayette County, and has been trying to get one approved somewhere in Allegheny County, welcomed the decision.
It was a matter of time, she said, before Act 10 was cast aside. "It is illegal, and it's been illegal," she said. "When you put a 500-foot ruling on doctor's offices, then we can have an intelligent conversation" about keeping medical facilities away from schools, she added.
"The only reason why professionals like myself haven't gone after it before was money," she said. "God took care of us," she said of the Reading ruling.
The court said neither the state nor Reading City Council cited any evidence to back their claims, similar to those raised by Hampton officials, that drug clinics cause an increase in criminal activity.
"We have no doubt that some methadone patients are inclined to criminal or otherwise dangerous behavior," wrote Circuit Court Judge Brooks Smith, of Duncansville, Blair County. "But that does not justify excluding from the coverage of the Act all persons with actual or perceived contagious diseases."
Instead, the judge wrote, Act 10 makes addicts "vulnerable to discrimination on the basis of mythology -- precisely the type of injury Congress sought to prevent."
Mr. Son called upon towns across Pennsylvania to press state Attorney General Tom Corbett to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court because the ruling declared a state statute unconstitutional. Mr. Corbett's office did not respond to several requests for comment, nor did the state Human Relations Commission.
"This kind of caught everybody by surprise," Mr. Son said. "By declaring it unconstitutional, it just pulls the rug out from the basis of any municipality that's made a decision. It's really just so bizarre."
Ms. Sugarmann, who's been a drug rehabilitation counselor for 24 years, said she was not prepared to comment on whether the ruling will prompt her to revisit the possibility of opening a clinic in Hampton.
"I'm going to open another clinic in the Pittsburgh area," she said. "Maybe not in Hampton, but somewhere. I'm not going to stop what I'm doing because of people's ignorance."
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