For almost five years, students in Professor Ellen Weber’s Drug Policy and Public Health Strategies Clinic have worked to enact policies that expand access to drug treatment services in Baltimore and protect individuals with histories of drug dependence from discrimination.
Now the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is on their side.
The DOJ notified the City of Baltimore on March 25 that the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division has authorized the filing of a lawsuit against the City to remedy a violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The City of Baltimore’s zoning code discriminates against licensed residential substance abuse treatment facilities, imposing stringent conditions regarding their opening or expansion that are not imposed on other residential health facilities.
Professor Weber and her students have worked for years to reach a negotiated agreement that would preclude such a lawsuit. In May 2007, the DOJ opened an investigation and immediately informed the City that its zoning standard violates the ADA. In the months that followed, DOJ, the Baltimore City Solicitor, and Professor Weber’s Clinic, on behalf of her clients, worked to find a solution.
"It’s really amazing to be part of a project that will ultimately help people change their lives for the better. Drug treatment is such an important issue in Baltimore, and it is shocking how the current standards impede accessibility. However, the complexity of making the necessary legislative changes has been eye-opening" said third-year student Elaine Lutz.
In addition to participating in negotiations with Council members, Lutz has conducted factual research into zoning standards and legal research into standards under the FHA and ADA, assisted treatment programs in their advocacy, attended Land Use Committee hearings and Baltimore Substance Abuse Directorate meetings, participated in Zoning Work Group meetings, and attracted public attention to the issue by working with the media and organizing a City Hall rally.
In December 2007, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon introduced Council Bill 07-0002 to end zoning discrimination against licensed residential substance abuse treatment facilities. However, the bill has languished in committee for months. With the City Council seemingly unable to pass the bill, the DOJ has notified the City that it is prepared to file a complaint any time after April 6.
“State data show that among patients who received residential treatment in 2006, the percentage who gained employment tripled between admission and discharge. These individuals pay taxes. They regain their health. They contribute to safer neighborhoods. We can’t afford to pass up these remarkable results,” said Professor Weber.
Professor Weber and her students are still hopeful that a negotiated agreement can be reached before such a suit is filed.