Cops and Council Take Complicated Approaches to Addiction Woes
This story is part of an ongoing series about the effect of methadone treatment on individuals and the neighborhood. PART I gave an overview of methadone treatment and the Goldman Clinic; PART II examined the Ramonita de Rodriguez Library; PART III took a close look at the issues surrounding the intersection of Front Street and Girard Avenue; PART IV outlined the potential of Vivitrol, an alternative treatment.
Broken Windows Part V:
Every year, Philadelphians eagerly await the rising temperatures and melting snow that spring brings. After the particularly harsh winter of 2015, residents welcome the sight of bikes, people wearing shorts, and the opportunity to take their time when walking to their destination.
But in some neighborhoods, the seasonal turnover also reveals a problem that only briefly hibernated— loitering addicts and more importantly, the drug dealers that prey upon them.
Local police noticed a decrease in the number of people hanging around on the streets after the last community meeting with the Goldman Clinic administrators at the Ramonita de Rodriguez Library at 6th and Girard.
“The problem has lessened at the donut shop [on Girard Avenue, between 6th and 7th Streets] … since the last meeting,” said Sgt. John Massi of the 26th Police District, “but is it because of the weather?”
Goldman is hardly the only clinic in the area. Regardless of why the problem ebbed on Girard between 6th and 8th, it seems to have increased at Front and Girard.
“Now we’re seeing stuff at the McDonald’s [on Girard Avenue, just east of Front St.],” Massi said, “but they don’t complain.”
Despite the lack of complaints, some local residents took pictures of hand-to-hand drug sales at that location and sent them to Massi. The photographs show people conducting their transactions at the side door of the restaurant.
“For something like that, you can’t even call 9-1-1,” Massi explained. “They’re gone before [we] could get there.”
But Massi and his fellow officers have a plan: With help from the Goldman Clinic, they’ve identified various prescription drugs that addicts abuse in dangerous combinations.
Certain blood pressure medications and antidepressants, when combined in pill form with methadone, can cause the classic “nodding” side effect that people see on YouTube and in person. Officers in the 26th are learning to identify those drugs.
“We have a pharmaceutical chart in roll call,” Massi said. They also printed fliers explaining the pills in question.
When an officer finds pills in an investigation, “they call poison control and give a description of the pill: size, color, engravings,” Massi said. Based on the information they get back from poison control, the officer can arrest the suspect. But street-level enforcement can only go so far.
“It’s definitely taking up resources,” he said.
Massi sees potential problems in the future with new projects and developments in the neighborhood.
“The [SugarHouse] casino expansion is one thing. There are always new bars opening. But we’re not getting more cops,” he said.
A few City Council members introduced legislation in recent years to combat the problems at the business and government regulation level.
Last year, Councilman Mark Squilla (1st District) pushed his “pill mill” legislation through. The bill creates potential license revocation for “Nuisance Health Establishments,” which the bill defines as: “Any Health Establishment determined by the Department to be a menace to public health because of controlled substance use, sale or the exchange of compensation for prescriptions for [Controlled] Substances or because of conditions arising from those activities.”
The bill was signed into law by Mayor Nutter in September 2014 and went into effect immediately. Squilla told the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association at their last quarterly meeting that potential action regarding the Goldman Clinic could be a “first test” of his legislation.
But when The Spirit asked how local residents could get the ball rolling on enforcement, Squilla’s spokesperson answered that the “Health Department is [still] creating the regulations.”
Goldman is located in Council President Darrell Clarke’s 5th District. A spokesperson for his office said, “This is a complicated issue, in which the comfort of neighbors must be balanced with the humane and decent obligation to make addiction treatment services available to the community.” She added that their office previously asked the city to look at Goldman due to “concerns about the way in which it provides services.”
Nutter’s press secretary, Mark McDonald, commended City Council for “coming up with great ideas for legislation,” but added, “Deciding who is going to do what is needed,” is another issue. According to McDonald, the first question is always, “Is there staffing?”
The Health Department’s Jeff Moran acknowledged it’s “taking a bit of time.”
Moran said the bill is complex and involves many different departments besides Health, including, “L&I, Police, Law [department], Environmental Health, and Behavioral Health.”
Moran could not project a completion date, but said they would likely have a clearer picture “in a month or so.”
When the enforcement procedures are completed, the process will be “complaint driven,” with the first step being handled by the Health Department.
Squilla’s co-sponsors on the bill, Council Members Bobby Henon and Brian O’Neill of the 6th and 10th Districts, respectively, took a different approach in their own districts. Rather than waiting for issues to happen, they created an “overlay” of Northeast Philadelphia with regard to community zoning rules.
Henon’s spokesman, Eric Horvath, said their “main focus was to give that extra layer of community input on new medical uses.”
Henon’s intent was to make sure no new “for-profit” methadone clinics could open up for business without seeking a variance from the Zoning Board. It would also prevent an existing business from expanding, as that would also be considered “new use.” This process would ensure that community members could formally voice their opinion of the new business.
Horvath concedes their method is limited in strength.
“Community input doesn’t carry force of law – it just is another thing the [Zoning Board] uses to weigh its decision,” he said.
Despite the fact that businesses could overcome the overlay regulations, Nutter vetoed the bill.
“This Bill effectively bans the establishment or expansion of medical, dental, or other health practices as of right in these district,” Nutter wrote in his official communication to council on the bill. He also cited potential negative impact on healthcare access and, “for doctors, dentists, and other health professionals hoping to open or expand a practice in the Northeast, this Bill sends a discouraging message by making their task more costly, complex, and uncertain.
But Henon and O’Neill convinced enough of their fellow council members to override the veto.
Horvath said that this extra layer is crucial as not all methadone clinics are a problem. Their bill just gives the community a seat at the table.
“Each clinic needs to be viewed in the correct context,” he said. “We have the NET Center on State Road, another methadone clinic, that partnered with the community from the outset, incorporated their concerns into their treatment, staffing and security plans and operates today as part of the community.”
For their part, administrators at the Goldman Clinic point out that they have been proactive and responsive to the community.
“We’re doing everything we can,” said Ron Pope, Director of the Goldman Clinic. “There’s only so much we can legally do to someone. I can’t tell someone who’s hanging out six blocks from here to get on a bus.”
Pope said the administrators will continue to hold community meet-and-greets and participate in the 26th district’s Police District Advisory Council (PDAC).
For now, Squilla will have to wait to test his new legal weapon. Massi will stay the course and battle on the front lines.
Residents do have some options in the meantime.
Calling 9-11 if something looks dangerous or illegal helps police create, “historical data,” Massi said.
“We encourage people to follow up with 311 … just to maintain a paper trail,” Horvath said.
With the new law being “complaint driven,” the paper trail will be crucial.