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Expansion of methadone clinic must not be allowed to diminish Lower West Side neighborhood

It is indisputable that addiction is driving up the need for clinics such as the one that Hispanics United opened on the Lower West Side of Buffalo last year. It is also unfortunate that the clinic opened where it did.

The precarious neighborhood wasn’t the right spot for such a clinic, but given that it opened there, a plan to expand the clinic should be evaluated from that perspective. If the need is documented and if the neighborhood can be given some assurance about appropriate protection, then expanding there makes more sense than opening another clinic in another possibly inappropriate location.

So far, it’s hard to assess how much impact, if any, the clinic’s presence has had on life in the Lower West Side. Some residents say they see evidence of increased drug use in the neighborhood, and it’s plausible. Drug users trying to back away from a life of self-destruction are easy prey for dealers who know how to trigger those cravings.

Yet it is also a fact that heroin use is spreading everywhere, in part because people first become addicted to powerful prescription painkillers. With law enforcement cracking down on misuse of those drugs, users turn to heroin, which is cheaper and not hard to find. It is possible that some or all of the drug use detected on the Lower West Side is evidence not of the clinic’s influence, but of society’s.

It’s an important question to try to answer as the clinic seeks to treat an additional 100 people beyond the 200 it serves now. Evidence of the need seems clear, with clinic leaders pointing to a waiting list of 190 for the clinic’s methadone program. And the need is, literally, a matter of life and death. In Erie County last year, 119 people died of opiate overdoses, about half of them occurring in Buffalo. At the current pace, that number could double this year.

As always, this is a question of balance, especially given that the appropriate balance has already been changed with the establishment of the clinic in this neighborhood. Can the clinic expand its operation in a way that protects not only the current quality of life on the Lower West Side, but allows for its improvement?

That will require some searching and, if the clinic were to expand, possibly a greater police presence. Either way, it’s not enough simply to accept or reject the plan without examining the likely consequences of either decision.

Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen has the right idea. He wants the city to work on the issues that members of the community are raising before moving forward: Is there a surge in drug use in the neighborhood because of the clinic? If so, how can it be diminished?

With that approach, Pridgen said, the clinic can build trust in the community and then, perhaps, move forward.

But it should happen as quickly as possible. People are dying and it is also in the city’s interest to help stem that lethal tide.