Civil Rights Threatened by California Rehab Legislation

By Zachary Siegel and Allison McCabe 04/21/16

If a bill like AB 2403 were to pass, not only will the bad players be put out of business, but so would those who operate ethically and with integrity.

California legislation threatens treatment facilities

“The reason we have rules like this for people with disabilities is because there has been a history of discrimination. We have these laws in place to protect the minority population who would not be able to withstand the pressure of the majority who don’t want them in their community." 

-Mike Herald, a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law & Poverty (WCLP)

Earlier this week, The Fix reported on four bills quietly moving through California’s legislature, each of which would affect mental and behavioral health care, particularly sober living houses and treatment centers throughout the state. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the four bills—AB 2403, SB 1283, AB 2772, and AB 2255—were heard before the Committees on both Public Safety and Health. As part of The Fix's ongoing series about recent legislative efforts targeting treatment providers across California, we take a closer look at these bills and what they could mean.

To recap, the bills were introduced by a handful of legislators who represent wealthy coastal communities, mainly Malibu. The legislation would result in the transfer of power from the state to local government, giving cities the ability to vote treatment centers and sober-living houses out of their neighborhoods and eliminating state protection from the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This would be the case for the whole state, not just wealthy areas such as Malibu and Newport.

“We strongly oppose the pieces of the bill that violate people’s civil rights,” Dave Sheridan, executive director of the Sober Living Network and president of National Alliance for Recovery Residences (NARR), said during his brief testimony against AB 2403.

AB 2403 would give local governments the ability to use their zoning power to force treatment facilities from the communities.   Under present law, most treatment centers are exempt from local zoning laws, which is why California has a thriving residential treatment industry. AB 2403 explicitly eliminates this zoning exemption for any facilities that are affiliated--even if that affiliation is limited to using the same consultant or vendor.  Also, AB 2403 mandates that if two or more facilities—even if owned by the same company—are within 300 feet of one another, it’s “overconcentration” and on these grounds local governments would be given the power to block the issuance of a license. In both of these cases, cities would be able to prevent or kick out treatment centers just because neighbors object.

“For the vast majority of the state that doesn’t look like Malibu or Newport Beach, these laws are wildly inappropriate," Sheridan said in a follow-up interview with The Fix. “South coastal communities, relatively affluent, dictating policies for Fresno, Stockton, and Oakland just doesn’t fit with what California needs.”

Boilerplate “Not in My Backyard!” (NIMBY) arguments have been rolled out by police and politicians who oppose these facilities. They cite them as the cause of increased crime and general nuisance, which drive down property values. Such complaints are empirically shallow. No study has ever found a causal relationship between the existence of recovery services in a neighborhood and criminal activity or diminished property value. Quite the contrary, a study published this year conducted by Johns Hopkins found that liquor stores pose a greater risk to communities than treatment centers.

“We have the opportunity to vastly expand the number of people in treatment... This is exactly going the opposite direction. Now you’re going to limit how many facilities you can have, where you have them, and trying to push them out into ‘not my neighborhood’ but some other neighborhood,” said Robert Harris, representing the California Society of Addiction Medicine, in the hearing for AB 2403 yesterday.

“I understand the concept of ‘Not In My Backyard,’” Harris said, “but if we do that to everybody all we have are drug addicts in our backyard and we don’t have people in treatment. Having people in treatment is the critical issue.”

Furthermore, the intentions of the wealthy few are being masked by what appear to be safety and regulatory provisions, that would, in theory, protect people seeking recovery from being preyed upon by unscrupulous, profit-driven providers. Sources from the treatment field agree that oversight, regulation, and quality control is necessary, but these bills are a giant overstep.

Cassidy Cousens, founder of 1 Method Center, told The Fix that thousands of beds may disappear as a result of these bills. It’s particularly disturbing, he said, because demand for sober housing and treatment is increasing amidst what the CDC is calling an epidemic of overdose spreading across America.

Outcomes of the Hearings

Assembly Bill 2772 was heard on Tuesday before the Assembly Committee on Public Safety. The Committee voted against the bill by a vote of 5-2.

Assembly Bill 2255 was heard on Tuesday before the Assembly Committee on Health. The Committee voted unanimously (17-0) in favor.

Senate Bill 1283 was heard on Wednesday before the Senate Committee on Health. After the hearing, Mike Herald from the WCLP told The Fix that the bill is “facially discriminatory.” He added, “It looks like it’s going to fail.” Update: SB 1283 was not passed.

Assembly Bill 2403, which is arguably the most controversial of the four, was heard in front of the Assembly Committee on Health on Tuesday (The Fix reported in-depth on this bill here). The Committee voted unanimously (15-0) in favor.

Democratic Assemblymember Richard Bloom, the bill’s author, said sternly during his testimony that “Nobody, and I say, nobody, is talking about ‘Not In My Backyard.’” At this statement, a member of the audience shouted a mocking, “Ha!”

“Every year we face [this type of] legislation. Usually it comes out of affluent communities in Southern California—the rich areas,” Thomas Renfree, deputy director of substance use disorder services at County Behavioral Health Directors Association of California, told The Fix. “They just don’t want [these facilities] in their neighborhoods.” If a bill like AB 2403 were to pass, not only will the bad players be put out of business, but so would those who operate ethically and with integrity.

Mike Herald from WCLP also testified in opposition to this bill. “In our view, the ultimate effect of AB 2403 will be to limit the availability of special needs housing opportunities for people with drug and alcohol [problems].”

There are five more steps before the bills that just passed can be enacted. From here, the bills will move on to the Appropriations Committee to discuss the fiscal impact, mainly how much it will cost the state to enact.

The fate of California’s drug and alcohol treatment industry remains unclear. By visiting this link, you can find your State Senate and Assembly representative’s contact information and voice your opinion. We have provided a sample message that you can use in your email or phone call to your representative's office. It’s imperative that the people make their voices heard by those who represent them. Don’t let the City of Malibu drag 400 other cities into their game.

Zachary Siegel has been a regular contributor to The Fix since 2013.

Allison McCabe is the editor in chief of The Fix.

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