The NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) syndrome is one significant challenge for opioid treatment programs (OTPs), which can’t operate if they can’t get approval from municipalities. Methadone maintenance treatment has been proven effective and producing good outcomes for five decades, but that isn’t preventing politicians from pandering to prejudice and discrimination. Still, the field is forging ahead, opening new programs and providing access to treatment to needy patients.
Sally Friedman, legal director with the Legal Action Center, said that local authorities often try to zone out drug and alcohol programs in general, but it’s even more difficult to site a methadone program. “It’s challenging to site any type of facility that serves people who folks don’t want around,” she said. “I’ve seen this from examining case law—there’s NIMBY for everything, the elderly, group homes, communities want to keep out all types of social services.”
But a special place in NIMBY-land is reserved for OTPs. In 1977 the Legal Action Center won a landmark discrimination case in which a federal court prevented White Plains in New York from zoning out alcohol and drug abuse treatment programs—and while it wasn’t specific to OTPs, OTPs are included. “Stereotypes and myths” play a part in the NIMBY decisions, said Ms. Friedman.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) clearly supports OTPs and their patients, and municipalities and their lawyers can easily lose in federal court since the law is so clear. “But there’s a lot of political calculation,” said Ms. Friedman. Local politicians think they have more to gain politically from keeping the facility out, so they’re willing to risk the lawsuit and let the court tell them what they have to do.
One point that the substance abuse treatment field in general needs to make more strongly is that medication is the first-line evidence-supported treatment for opioid addiction. “Myth and misunderstanding continue to plague not just methadone alone but medication-assisted treatment [MAT] in general,” said Michal Botticelli, deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy [ONDCP]. For opioid dependence in particular, medication is the “first line in our arsenal,” he said. “We have to make sure people understand that this is the standard of care.”
Mr. Botticelli added that there is an opportunity to create a greater consumer voice in favor of MAT. “People have done exceedingly well on methadone maintenance.” Some people need more than medication—other social supports and the structure of an OTP—but others don’t.
As states continue to express concern about prescription drug abuse and overdoses, mainly surrounding opioids, the ONDCP is increasing its stress on the importance of access to methadone and buprenorphine, as well as social supports provided in an OTP. “If we really want to deal with overdose deaths, we need to make sure that we have adequate access to MAT.”
The same myths and stereotypes that bolster NIMBY apply to the criminal justice system, which routinely denies access to medication-assisted treatment. The biggest myth is the one that methadone and buprenorphine are “substituting one addiction for another,” which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Patients in MAT are not addicted—they are not pursuing drugs, they are in recovery, employed, productive members of society. But proponents of discrimination don’t understand how the medications work.
Lack of Negative Impact
It’s also easy to demonstrate the lack of a negative impact in NIMBY siting cases. Jerry Rhodes, chief operating officer of CRC Health Group, said it’s important to bring out studies that show crime goes down when clinics are deployed. “There is science that shows methadone treatment has good results,” he said. But here’s the problem: the issue is an emotional, not a logical, one.
The studies showing that methadone works have been ignored by many public policy makers. And while OTPs had been hoping to enlist government officials and regulators in support of MAT, that isn’t working either. “We’ve had the rug pulled out from under us,” said Mr. Rhodes. “We’re trying to get a more robust commitment.”
Support From Patients
One thing OTPs could do better is to involve the support of patients, said Mr. Rhodes. “There are often compelling personal stories around the need for treatment, and the effectiveness of MAT.”
In general, the OTP field has done a poor job of rallying patients. But Mr. Rhodes understands that it’s hard to get patients to come forward. “You could lose your job, your neighbor could say something, there’s a fear of being seen as a patient in a clinic.”
The field is beginning to recognize that OTP patients, like other people in recovery, can be a significant voting bloc. For example, there are 5,000 to 6,000 OTP patients in West Virginia. In a small state like West Virginia, 5,000 votes—in some places, even 1,000 votes—can swing an election. When there is no access to MAT, patients—and prospective patients, who also vote—suffer. “This is a job for the National Alliance for Medication Assisted Recovery (NAMA),” Mr. Rhodes said.
Another good advocacy tactic involves collaborating with other groups. Mr. Rhodes cited the effectiveness of the autism advocacy movement, which is spearheaded by parents who are fierce advocates for their children. Drug addicts, alcoholics, people with mental illness need the same kind of advocates, but have always been treated as marginal populations, which is what drives the stigma. “We can do a better job of working with other constituents,” he said.
Even as a field, various types of treatment are fragmented—medication, no medication, alcohol, drugs—and OTPs could benefit by these groups working together and bringing OTPs into the tent.
Back to NIMBY
The bottom line is, OTPs need facilities, and that means they need certificates of occupancy. Mr. Rhodes warns clinics against going into a community to develop a clinic and not garnering support first. “You can’t do this and not deal with NIMBY, but you can do a better job of trying to support these efforts.”
Here are some of the things you can expect to hear when you try to site a program. “This isn’t our problem.” That’s pretty easy to refute, because an OTP usually has done research and knows that there is an opioid problem. For example, at one meeting, someone stood up and said, “I don’t want this town becoming a methadone mecca.” A physician who was there then said, “You don’t understand, this town is already a heroin mecca.”
The OD Bandwagon
Despite the many newspaper articles about prescription opioid abuse and overdoses, there are rarely any discussions of the cure—treatment. “People don’t understand how prescription opioid abuse relates to methadone treatment,” said Mr. Rhodes. “We rarely address the cure, we just talk about the magnitude of the problem.”
“Education is key,” agreed Ms. Friedman. “We need to explain how the disease works, how the treatments work, and how we produce successful outcomes.”