RICHMOND (AP) — Lawmakers on a House panel yesterday approved legislation that would prohibit methadone clinics from operating within a half-mile of a school or day-care center.
The same committee also rejected a similar, but less restrictive, measure by one vote in what the bill’s Democratic patron said amounted to “political games.”
Both the bills, sponsored by Sens. William C. Wampler Jr. and John S. Edwards, would have required the state to notify localities when it receives an application to open a clinic in their area. Mr. Wampler’s proposal added the school-proximity restriction, which opponents say would effectively ban methadone clinics in many urban areas.
Mr. Wampler’s bill passed the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee by a 14-7 vote, while Mr. Edwards’ failed 10-9.
Mr. Wampler, Bristol City Republican, said Southwest Virginia residents have been enraged by recent proposals to open clinics in their neighborhoods, bringing what they fear will be an increase in drug trafficking and crime.
But opponents of his measure, who testified before lawmakers for the first time yesterday, said there are too many misconceptions surrounding the clinics, which help hundreds of Virginians recover from addictions to heroin, morphine and other painkillers, including OxyContin.
“We’re already having problems opening up these programs,” said Laurel Heiser, assistant program director for a private company that operates clinics in Virginia. “Folks don’t even want to give us a chance.”
Miss Heiser testified that many addicts in Virginia have to travel hours to receive methadone treatment. If Mr. Wampler’s bill becomes law, there would be few spots in the city of Roanoke, for instance, where clinics could legally be placed, she said.
“Crime is already going to occur in many of these neighborhoods, especially if there are not treatment options,” she said.
Mr. Wampler said, however, that many clinics become open-air drug markets in the hours before they open in the morning, as dealers try to tempt the people who come for treatment.
“Methadone treatment, we believe, should be in the proper hospital setting,” he said. His bill would carve out exceptions for treatment programs in hospitals located near schools.
Mr. Edwards, Roanoke Democrat, argued that the half-mile restriction was arbitrary and may doom Mr. Wampler’s bill in the full House. He viewed his proposal as a less-intrusive alternative, as it only would require the state to inform localities of pending license applications to give them time to hold public hearings.
Mr. Edwards said the House committee may have voted his bill down in response to the full Senate re-referring a similar House proposal to committee on Monday. A bill sponsored by Delegate Onzlee Ware, Roanoke Democrat, would only require notification of planned clinics, as in Mr. Edwards’ bill.
“I wanted to keep mine separate in case [Mr. Wamplers] didn’t go through the full House,” he said. “It seems like political games are being played after what the Senate did yesterday on the floor.”
The same committee voted down a House bill similar to Mr. Wampler’s last month, but reversed its position yesterday.