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Amherst backs off tough restrictions on drug clinics

Interest in adopting tough new restrictions on where drug treatment clinics can locate in the Town of Amherst appears to have waned among members of the Town Board.

The proposed Amherst local law wouldn't allow a drug treatment clinic to locate within 400 feet of a residence or within 1,000 feet of a school, playground or library.

At the conclusion of a public hearing Tuesday night, Town Supervisor Barry Weinstein said the proposed changes would need more revisions — and set an indefinite timeline.

Weinstein, who leaves the Town Board along with two other members at the end of this year, said the issue could be taken up next year "if next year's Town Board wants to."

The proposal was a reaction to neighbors' objections to Catholic Health System's plan to open a new clinic on Millersport Highway that would provide methadone, Suboxone and other medication to patients. Catholic Health last month picked an alternative site in an industrial park.

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Dr. Gale R. Burstein, Erie County's health commissioner, was the first of more than half a dozen speakers who urged the board to drop the proposal.

Access to medication-assisted treatment is the only evidence-based approach that works, and is more important this year because of the presence of fentanyl, a potent painkiller, in street drugs, she said.

"The risks are much, much higher," Burstein told the board. "Anybody who's addicted and using opioids is at higher risk in 2017 of dying than in the past because of the fentanyl out in the street."

Dr. Roseanne C. Berger, a family physician practicing in Amherst, said some patients can be treated by primary care physicians in offices like hers, but others need concentrated treatment offered by clinics.

"If you're living in Amherst and going to have a productive career and you're going to get on with your life, you've got to have that available within your community," she said.

Judge Mark G. Farrell, founder of the town's Drug Court, said he felt the proposed law was unconstitutional, and would not survive a court challenge.

"I feel it's discriminatory," he said. "I feel it stigmatizes those with a very real disease, a malady, and makes it impossible for them to be treated in the same fashion as anyone else going to the doctor's office where none of these restrictions and limitations would exist."

The Planning Board tabled the proposal until its Sept. 14 meeting. The Town Board will have the final say.

Councilmember Debbie Bruch Bucki, a registered nurse, said it was never her intention to seek to deny treatment to those who need it.

"I think in the particular case of 910 Millersport it was an issue of location, and probably this local law was seeking to try to put some parameters on that," she said.

Deputy Town Supervisor Steven Sanders suggested relaxing some of the more stringent restrictions, such as barring two clinics from within 1,000 feet of each other.

"I think we need to do something," he said. "But I agree with the commenters today, the public, that has told us we need to be very careful with the restrictions we put in place that may unnecessarily stigmatize the people who are suffering."

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