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Editorial: Unease on Virginia Street

There have been objections to Hispanic United’s methadone clinic ever since it opened five years ago on Buffalo’s West Side.

A recent story in The News highlighted neighbors’ complaints about finding used needles on the ground, and seeing clients loiter in the neighborhood, idling taxis jamming Virginia Street and some clients selling their Saturday “takeaway” doses out in plain view.

Clients of the clinic say it helps keep them alive. Methadone reduces cravings and withdrawal and blocks the effects of opioids. It serves an essential need as the country grapples with the crisis that has overtaken it.

Geno Russi, executive director of Hispanics United, told a Buffalo News reporter, “We take the precautions to run a good operation.” From the perspective of some neighbors, those precautions are not enough.

The clinic is in a former church, next door to Hispanic United’s offices. It has been there since 2014 and is not likely to move, but the operators owe it to their neighbors to ensure the operation is run safely and securely, without compromising their surroundings.

Among the disgruntled neighbors is D.J. Granville, who lives near the clinic and works as chief of narcotics for the Erie County Sheriff’s Office. His complaints carry weight.

Granville said he has seen drug transactions right outside the clinic and has found used needles on the ground in the neighborhood. Granville thinks drug dealers are preying on the clients who are battling their addictions. He wants the clinic to relocate.

“It should take place in a medical facility in the medical corridor, not smack dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood that’s causing all these concerns,” Granville said.

Russi responds that crime has gone down around the clinic, as it has in the rest of the city, in the past five years.

The Hispanic United facility, called Alba de Vida, is one of three clinics in the city that administer methadone, a synthetic opioid used to treat those addicted to heroin and other opioids.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved three medications to treat opioid use disorder. Only methadone is required to be given in separate clinics, apart from the general medical care system. The other two approved medications, buprenorphine and naltrexone, can be prescribed and administered in primary care settings.

Three Boston doctors argued in a July 2018 piece in the New England Journal of Medicine that Congress should update the Narcotic Addiction Treatment Act, a 1974 law, to allow methadone to be administered by prescription in primary care settings, as well as in separate clinics. Drs. Jeffrey Samet, Michael Botticelli and Monica Bharel wrote that doing so would remove barriers to receiving the medication. Only about 20% of Americans who have an opioid use disorder are being treated with buprenorphine, naltrexone or methadone, they said.

That law, as it applies to opioid addiction, hasn’t been revised since 2000 – long before the existing crisis, fed by prescription pain relievers, gripped the country. Such a change could lessen demand at the clinics. Alba de Vida serves about 525 clients per day.

Areas around methadone clinics can attract heroin dealers looking for customers. It’s pathetic, but it’s a fact: The News’ story about the clinic listed the arrests this year of two men near the clinic, both on charges connected to drugs.

It's past time for Congress to revisit the out-of-date narcotics laws governing methadone, but it is unlikely to act anytime soon. In the meantime, opioid overdoses claim an estimated 115 lives per day in the United States.

The Virginia Street clinic serves a valuable purpose and it is here to stay. Whatever happens – or doesn’t – regarding federal law, its operators need to do everything possible to reassure their neighbors of a safe and peaceful coexistence.

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