With a decision expected Monday on the rezoning to allow a new medical centre beside Crossroads Public School on Niagara Stone Road, a surprising element will likely be added to the discussion – whether a methadone clinic should be located beside an elementary school.
In an email sent to town councillors and staff last week, a resident of Henry Street in Virgil asked the Town to consider a bylaw amendment that would exclude a methadone clinic from the medical centre property, due to the proximity of the development to an elementary school.
Simpson's Pharmacy is one of the drugstores in the region that dispenses oral, “observed” doses of methadone to those with prescriptions, and is expected to move to the new centre if the necessary commercial rezoning is approved.
Owner Sean Simpson says the pharmacy has been part of the program for the last 12 years, with no problems and very few people aware of a service that is handled with discretion and confidentiality, for those who are being treated for opioid dependency.
Patients see specialists who write the prescriptions – not at the local doctors' offices, because general practitioners are unable to prescribe methadone and suboxone, two drugs used to treat opiod addictions – and also receive counselling, but again, not locally, Simpson said.
The offices where specialists offer counselling and prescriptions could more accurately be called methadone clinics, said Simpson, than the pharmacies that only dispense the drugs.
The email from the concerned resident has been doing the rounds on social media, with comments indicating safety concerns from some people and others who don't see any danger to having a drug store next to a school, whether or not it dispenses methadone.
“I don't believe it's anything people should be concerned with,” said Simpson, pointing out the service was offered at the pharmacy when Niagara District Secondary School was across the street, and in recent years, the international high school, as well as at the pharmacy's King Street location, with Parliament Oak School and now Royal Oak Community School near by.
“We've never had an issue. I don't see it as an issue per se – I don't believe it presents any realistic danger. More often than not these patients are members of our community. They come for treatment. They don't cause a problem. They are doing their best to be contributing members of society. I don't think they should be treated any differently than anyone else. We see a great number of patients successfully treated who get their lives back on track.”
He said at any given time he has about five to 10 patients who receive their medication at the pharmacy, some every day, others multiple times a week, and he's proud to be able to provide that service to those who need it. Most are local, although he has one patient who lives in another municipality but works in NOTL.
“We don't view pharmacies as methadone clinics by any stretch – it's a service we provide to those who need it, and it's a service we would like to continue to provide for our patients, who could be your neighbour, brother sister or uncle,” he said.
'In my opinion the fact that this has become a topic of conversation is unfair to the people we treat. I am concerned about the stigmatization they might feel as a result of this discussion.”
Martin Mazza, one of the Town councillors who has consistently opposed the rezoning required for the Crossroads Medical Centre to move ahead, said he has known about the methadone dispensing at Simpson's for three or four years, but out of respect for the Simpson family and the work they do for the community, has not mentioned it.
“It's a sensitive topic. Out of respect for the Simpsons and the program itself, I didn't want to make it political.”
School zones, he said, should be safety zones, “and parents should know when they drop their kids off at school that it's safe. I don't think this should be located next door to a school, or in a residential neighbourhood.”
While he has concerns about the treatment being provided so close to the school, he said he believes the traffic problems on their own present enough of a safety hazard to prevent the rezoning of the property to commercial use. It's currently zoned for residential development, and Mazza said he has been hoping the traffic issues would be enough to convince the majority of council to keep it that way. “This is not smart rezoning.”
At the August council meeting, the rezoning decision was deferred until September to give Town staff an opportunity to work out traffic solutions with the developer and the Region.
The 10 Niagara-on-the-Lake family doctors from the Niagara North Family Health Team chose the property at Niagara Stone Road and Line 2 for their two-storey medical centre. Some now have offices at the Niagara Medical Clinic where Simpson's Pharmacy is located, and others at the former NOTL Hospital, where they have leases that expire in December, 2019.
In addition to the medical clinic, which would bring all the NOTL doctors under the same roof, the proposal includes plans for a pharmacy, laboratory, optometrist, physiotherapist, imaging and professional offices. Residents living on Henry and Andres Streets are already dealing with increased traffic and cars parked on side streets in the area, and fear the problems will worsen with the added traffic from staff and visitors to the medical centre.
At the August council meeting, Couns. Mazza, Paolo Miele and John Wiens voted to defer the rezoning decision on a motion made by Coun. Terry Flynn, with a report on possible traffic solutions to come to the Sept. 17 council meeting, the last one for this term of council.
Property owner Lloyd Redekopp said without the rezoning and site plan approval before the end of this term of council, it's unlikely the building can be finished to meet the doctors' timeline.