Cruel and Illegal: Police Are Stalking Methadone Clinics to Target and Harass Patients

Personal Health

Courtney’s life spiraled out of control when she became dependent on opiates. After years of struggling with addiction, the 31-year-old Texas native heard about methadone treatment, a therapy in which patients take daily doses of medicine to control cravings for illicit opiates. Courtney enrolled as a patient at a methadone clinic outside Austin. She began visiting the clinic daily for a dose of methadone, which helped eliminate her cravings, and slowly, began to pick up the other pieces of her life. That changed the day she became the victim of illegal profiling by police.

One hot day in September 2014 as Courtney was exiting the methadone clinic parking lot, a police cruiser pulled her over for making a wide turn. Two officers, a male and female, ordered her out of the car. The male officer stood close to her, breathing heavily and looking her up and down. Courtney was terrified and shaky. Though she tested negative for illicit substances and had no prior or drug or alcohol charges, for the next hour the cops put her through a series of sobriety tests. Frightened and exhausted, Courtney finally broke down crying. She was arrested and charged with driving under the influence despite the fact that methadone does not cause driving impairment and she had taken no other substances.

Ralph* was a methadone patient in West Virginia. He had a steady job, no outstanding warrants or charges, and thanks to his treatment, hadn’t taken any illicit drugs in years. Every two weeks he drove an hour to the clinic to collect take-home doses. But one afternoon as he was leaving, a West Virginia state trooper pulled him over for going 5 miles over the speed limit. The trooper forced Ralph to take a field sobriety test, which he passed, and searched his car. Unable to charge Ralph with anything, the frustrated trooper dumped the methadone into the gravel and drove away. Ralph was devastated. Without the medicine, his cravings for opiates could come back and put him at risk of relapse. He also worried he might lose his take-home privileges at the methadone clinic and be required to visit every day, which could affect his job. He didn’t know what to do.

Unfortunately, stories like Courtney and Ralph’s are not uncommon. Though it’s more the exception than the rule, methadone clinics across the country report harassment of patients by law enforcement. One study of methadone patients at 29 different locations in New York City reported that 40% of patients reported being stopped and frisked by police outside their clinic site and 70% reported witnessing police harassment of another person outside a methadone clinic.

Often it’s just one or two rogue officers with an ax to grind who cause most of the trouble, but the effects can be devastating. Harassing patients discourages people from seeking methadone therapy, a legal, effective, evidence-based treatment for the growing number of Americans dependent on opiates such as heroin or prescription pain pills. Also known as opiate replacement therapy, methadone treatment is proven not only to help people stop using illicit substances but also to significantly lower deaths from drug overdose and recidivism.

Kim Comstock, Executive Director and owner of a methadone clinic in Cedar Park, Texas, describes her experience with police.

“Our patients have been pulled over for not using a blinker to turn out of the parking lot or for pulling into the far lane. One patient was ticketed for leaving her dog in the car while she went to get her medicine. The cop sits out there specifically during clinic hours and waits for any opportunity to get people. This is systematic harassment of people with a disability.”

Targeting patients at methadone clinics is illegal profiling and a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Zac Talbott, Administrator for the Peer Recovery Network in Tennessee and organizer for the National Alliance of Methadone Advocates Southeast division, has fought dozens of these cases. In most instances, the charges (usually driving under the influence) are dropped.

“We’ve challenged and won numerous DUI cases,” says Zac Talbott. “A stable, daily dose of methadone does not cause euphoria. It takes 45 minutes for methadone to even take effect, so if patients are pulled over just as they leave the clinic, the methadone hasn’t even kicked in yet.”

Most law enforcement know that methadone doesn’t cause driving impairment and that charges will eventually be dropped. But as Talbott explains, the cops aren’t really looking to book people for DUI.

“New patients who come [to the clinic] daily are usually still in the process of straightening their lives out from active addiction,” says Talbott. “They may have an outstanding warrant or a history of illicit substance use, so the cops figure out that even if they can’t get a DUI, they might find a warrant or a needle or a roach.”

New methadone clinic patients report daily for their treatment dose, while patients who have been in treatment for a long time and have consistently tested negative for illicit substances can earn take-home privileges and may only have to visit the clinic every few days or every couple of weeks. So the patients who visit the clinic most often, and thus are at highest risk for profiling, are precisely the ones most likely to have something of interest to police. The harassment has less to do with methadone itself than with patients being easy targets for small charges. 

In response to frequent harassment of clients, many methadone clinic administrators have approached law enforcement to rectify the problem. But when Kim Comstock tried to talk to local law enforcement about profiling, and even offered to train officers on methadone and its effectiveness at treating illicit opiate addiction, she was turned away.

“I called the police chief and supervisors but was told that if we give patients methadone, they are driving under the influence when they leave,” she says. “I offered to train the whole department on methadone, but they said they already knew everything they needed to know.”

At a methadone clinic in western North Carolina that was also experiencing harassment, a counselor held an open house for first responders and law enforcement to explain methadone treatment. Not one member of law enforcement showed up. Letters pleading their case also went ignored.

But not every effort to approach law enforcement meets pushback. Often, department leadership is unaware of the profiling and will put a quick stop to it once they are notified.

Robin Rathbun, a former employee of the Dail Memorial Treatment Center in Commerce, Georgia, offers an example of successful outreach to police.

“The cops had been harassing our patients for a long time,” she says. “After some effort, we got a meeting between the police chief, road investigator, the clinic pharmacist and me. The police chief was shocked when we explained the problem. He said, ‘That’s illegal profiling. That needs to stop immediately.’ And it did. They found out it was a couple of young, hotshot cops who had their own opinion about people on methadone.”

Although law enforcement are not always responsive when approached about harassing patients, most methadone clinic administrators agree that the best practice for stopping profiling is to try to open a dialogue with local departments. Sometimes education on methadone or making department leadership aware of what is happening is enough to stop the practice.

“You have to be assertive and come to [the police] with information on profiling,” explains Robin. “Bring legal documents that show that a patient taking methadone is not probable cause for impairment.”

Methadone clinics in South Carolina have been successful in reaching out to law enforcement. “[Police harassment of patients] has occurred at several of our centers over time,” says an administrator. “We have made great progress over the years by going to law enforcement leaders and educating them about what we do. It has essentially eliminated the issue.”

Of course approaching law enforcement hasn’t helped Kim Comstock in Texas or other methadone clinic administrators who have run into brick walls when approaching police or sheriffs with complaints. But Comstock isn’t giving up. She plans to fight back by building a legal case.

“Our next step is to get the patients to communicate with attorneys’ about their experiences,” says Comstock. “Patients should also have a statement in their glove compartment about how methadone is a legitimate treatment modality and does not cause driving impairment. If you get pulled over, stay calm, do what the officer says and write down everything that happened.”

Since the drug war began, stigma and false information about drugs has lead to countless laws, policies and practices that profile, target, and harass people who use them. Ironically, these actions discourage many from seeking help to stop drug use.

“Access to methadone is a human rights issue,” says Roberto Hess, a methadone clinic administrator in western North Carolina. “This is not an experimental research treatment. Methadone treatment is evidence based, effective and gets people back on track to where they are living productive healthy lives.”

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