Only days before this year’s Thanksgiving holiday, a Kentucky county approved a controversial ordinance placing strict limits on where many new addiction treatment facilities can operate.
The law, which confines new facilities to shopping centers, raises important issues about the legality and prudence of such decisions that target addicted populations or organizations that serve them.
Breathitt County arrived at the new legislation after a previous version was struck down by a circuit court judge, who found it to be in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. That 2015 ordinance had brazenly barred any new drug-treatment centers from opening in the county.
The revised ordinance backs away from out-and-out banning new treatment centers. Instead, it requires facilities that provide medications like methadone or Suboxone to be situated in shopping centers. Although it’s easy to see this as an improvement on the outlawing of addiction treatment, is it really more defensible?
Federal anti-discrimination laws — including the Rehabilitation Act, the Fair Housing Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act — offer protections against limiting the ability of drug-treatment companies to find locations. Drug addiction is considered a disability, which qualifies it for protection under anti-discrimination laws. Local governments can be sued for zoning laws or other legislation that may violate these protections.
Apparently the only reason Breathitt’s revised ordinance is not being challenged in court is that the fiscal court amended it to grant an exception to the company that would have been the plaintiff. So it certainly seems likely that it’s only a matter of time before the ordinance could be overturned in another court ruling, as many similar laws have been.
When passing legislation like this, people might reason that they are looking out for the community’s best interests. Some argue that requiring drug-treatment facilities to be in shopping centers makes it easier for the police to keep an eye on things. They worry about illicit behavior around drug clinics and figure that strip malls are more easily patrolled by law enforcement.
But what kind of message does this send to the community? Clearly, the message is that people seeking help for addiction are likely criminals. This is a step backward in a country that has embraced the understanding that addiction is a medical condition that requires professional treatment.
Others reason that it’s best for addiction treatment facilities to be located far away from residential areas. They feel that this will keep more drug users out of their neighborhoods and, along with them, an increase in illegal behavior or impaired drivers.
This reasoning is understandable, but there are problems with it, too. For one, it likewise defines people in treatment first of all as potential criminals rather than sick people obtaining treatment for their health problems. But it also defers the real problem of drug addiction in their own backyards.
What will happen when a local community makes it so hard for addiction treatment facilities to operate that there are no resources for their own residents? The problems they feared from the opening of treatment facilities will spring up twofold in the absence of such facilities. Even when there are still options for those seeking help, but those options are severely limited, fewer people in the area will get the treatment they need.
This means more impaired drivers on the road, not fewer. It means more illicit drug activity in the area, not less. It means a community that is still sick, not one recovering from an addiction epidemic.
Recognizing that addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease, and that it killed more than 47,000 Americans in 2014 alone, entails a certain responsibility. The “not in my backyard” approach of building barriers to expanded treatment resembles something that people with or around addictions know well — denial.
Denying that addiction will remain in our backyards until we allow evidence-based treatment centers in will only prolong the addiction epidemic and the other social problems connected to it.
Brandon Duncan works for Stepworks Recovery Centers, based in Lexington.
At issue: Herald-Leader article, “One county will limit where drug-addiction clinics can open”