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UNM halts plans to build a substance abuse clinic after neighbors protest
New Mexico has led the nation in overdose deaths for most of the last 20 years. Most of us think it will never be our family members adding to those scary numbers. A couple of months ago, my oldest son came within a few minutes of becoming part of that statistic.
Now, several mornings a week I drive him to a methadone clinic near Central and San Mateo. Along the way, we pass a couple dozen people looking a little rough around the edges, milling about along the two busy streets. But that isn't anything new. For decades, this stretch of Central has had its share of problems.
The area was informally known as part of the War Zone, and the name alluded to drug- and alcohol-fueled violence that plagued the streets. Residents and business owners are trying to reclaim the region. They renamed it the International District in an effort to embrace and emphasize the area’s diversity.
“... the people using services to get help aren't the problem. The problem is folks who have fallen through the cracks.”
UNM's 30-year-old Addictions and Substance Abuse Program (ASAP) was looking to move into the neighborhood. Over the last decade, its recovery professionals have provided services for thousands of patients each year from inside a warehouse near the Sunport. The lease on that space ends in the summer of 2013. A city-owned vacant lot southeast of Central and San Mateo looked to be an ideal spot. But on Wednesday, Nov. 7, UNM Hospitals CEO Steve McKernan said plans to build a clinic have been set aside due to neighborhood opposition.
A clinic in the International District would serve many more people—folks who cannot get to the warehouse by the airport. Public transportation is key to accessibility, and the Sunport location doesn’t have bus service seven days a week. The proposed lot was on the reliable Central public transportation route, and a large number of ASAP's patients live along the corridor.
I attended public meetings on the issue with two hats on: One as a longtime journalist covering an issue important to the public, and the other as the parent of an adult drug addict in recovery. Neither of those hats is easily removed.
A vocal group of International District residents sent their message loud and clear. They don't want another treatment facility in their backyard. They pointed fingers at two methadone clinics: Bernalillo County’s Metropolitan Assessment and Treatment Services, which provides detox help, and Turquoise Lodge, an inpatient, state-run rehab facility. They also made reference to the Endorphin Power Company, a sober living facility.
There aren’t enough opiate treatment centers in Bernalillo County and, as I discovered first-hand, they can have a 20-week waiting list for new patient intake.
Some demanded the proposed building be put in the more affluent Northeast Heights. But according to UNM, more than half of ASAP’s patients come from the Southeast Heights and the South Valley.
Residents say drug addicts migrating into the neighborhoods commit property crimes and leave behind dirty needles and trash. “I would like to ask each one of the doctors where they live,” said Erica Landry, a longtime International District resident, at the Thursday, Nov. 1 meeting. “I’d like you to walk the neighborhood and see the needles in the gutters, see the people who frequent the bars and watch the homeless people urinate or defecate in front of you.”
Pete Dinelli, deputy city attorney, is rumored to be testing the mayoral waters. He spoke on behalf of taxpayers. “These are constituents, people who pay taxes, and they, too, are concerned about the type of program.”
I was not pleased with the manner of comments exhibited by some objectors and the local politicians who showed up trying to curry favor with voters. They raised their voices, interrupted the social scientists and experts, were disrespectful to the professional health providers and made disparaging comments about drug patients. They ignorantly insinuated that the substance abuse recovery programs are turning the neighborhood into a nightmare.
The way I see it, wearing my mother’s hat and frequently driving my son into the area for methadone, the people using services to get help aren't the problem. The problem is folks who have fallen through the cracks. If you want to clean up your neighborhood, get behind the idea of help for those most in need. The fewer medical services available, the greater the desperation, trouble and crime.
Programs in outlying areas are maxed out. There aren’t enough opiate treatment centers in Bernalillo County and, as I discovered first-hand, they can have a 20-week waiting list for new patient intake. For recovering opiate abusers trying to get medicine to fight and break their addiction, just one day without methadone can cause a freefall into relapse.
I spoke with Rodney McNease, UNM Hospital’s Behavioral Health finance director, after the hospital announced it would look for another location. He says UNM will continue to seek a new space in the International District. He also says the need for addiction services for both young people and adults is huge. “There are less services now than there were 10 to 15 years ago.” The problem is citywide. People from more affluent parts of Albuquerque are increasingly in need of addiction services. But there are no plans to locate a methadone clinic in the Heights, McNease says, because upper or middle class addicts often find their way to private rehab centers throughout the Southwest.
The hospital is reaching out to residents to put together a working group. Joanne Landry, president of Trumbull Village Neighborhood Association, said she and her association members are interested in helping find a more suitable piece of property nearby—off Central, they're thinking, somewhere not so much in the public eye. Some of the opposition is worried about the clinic's threat to tourist-friendly businesses along their Route 66 frontage. As a Nob Hill resident living a block off Central, I consider the International District my neighbor. I signed up to be a part of the working group helping UNM find a better location.
With the increase in prescription pill addictions, those needing medically based treatment come in all shades, from many backgrounds and economic strata. They are mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, daughters and sons.
If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes the whole community to heal those suffering from addiction.
Carolyn Carlson has been in journalism for more than 25 years, covering numerous New Mexico communities, governments, law enforcement agencies, high school sports and environmental issues.