George, 52, a methadone patient from Brooklyn, remembers the time he noticed a police presence in a Starbucks near a methadone clinic on 8th Ave and 35th Street.
"I was waiting for my buddy to show up," said George. "There was a guy sitting at a laptop. He was there for hours, and he had his eyes glued to that door, talking to a headset, saying who was going in and who was doing what," said George. "Then they would get grabbed."
In an interview with City Limits, George explained that fast food establishments are a favorite spot for cops hoping to bust someone for selling methadone. "This has been a systematic thing," said George.
VOCAL NY, an organization that advocates on health and criminal justice, reported in October that methadone clinics have been targeted by police, and that methadone users have been subject to unwanted stop and frisks.
"[We] methadone patients are medically pro?led. They single us out when they see us coming and going from the program," said one respondent to VOCAL's survey.
According to the VOCAL-NY report, just about 30,000 city resident participate in methadone maintenance treatment.
Methadone is used for treating opiate (heroin) addiction. "Methadone blocks the brain's craving for heroin by filling receptor cells that are asking for heroin," Thomas D'Aunno, Executive Vice Dean and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, said in an email. "Methadone fills the craving that heroin users feel, while delivering little or no 'high.'"
But methadone use can be addictive and dangerous, D'Aunno said.
According to recent statistics from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), there were 11,499 unintentional overdose deaths in 2007 involving Opioid Analgesics Parallel Opioid Sales across the United States. Statistics show there has been a 296 percent increase in overdose deaths since 1999.
According to VOCAL-NY's survey of 500 clinic users, roughly four in ten patients surveyed reported being stopped and frisked outside a clinic they attended and nearly seven in ten respondents (69.7 percent) witnessed someone else being frisked or harassed by police while entering or leaving the clinic.
Statistics provided by The State Division of Criminal Justice Services suggest methadone is the basis for few arrests or convictions. From 2000 through 2010, there were only 883 arrests and 584 convictions in cases where the top charge involved methadone. So far in 2011, there have been 31 arrests and 46 convictions, with some of the convictions involving arrests from earlier years. By comparison, in 2008 alone, 40,000 people were arrested in New York City for fifth degree possession of marijuana.
Asked whether the data provided by the DCJS contradicted the concerns about police tactics raised in its report, Sean Barry, Executive Director of VOCAL-NY, said those numbers provided only an incomplete picture, and one that still raised questions. Perhaps methadone users are being stopped and frisked, but found to be clean and not arrested. It's also possible some methadone arrests aren't covered by the DCJS numbers because those figures only cover arrests in which methadone sale is the top charge; there could be other methadone-related arrests that involve more serious charges as well.
And, Barry adds, the statistics that are available make it clear, "We're not talking about king-pins with stockpiles of methadone, these are low-income patients selling a single bottle or portion of it."That helps confirms what we've anecdotally heard, which is that OTP patients are being targeted for arrests for selling methadone."
The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.
Other issues raised in the VOCAL-NY report include limited clinic hours, and patients not being informed of their right for alternative treatments.
"Methadone diversion is the result of barriers to access," Barry said. "People have trouble enrolling in a program, they are involuntarily discharged, or they miss a dose, perhaps due to one of the factors we discuss in our report. But it is not a drug that people take to get high," said Barry. "They take it to manage withdraw symptoms and cravings."
Reflecting on the times he's seen police bust fellow patients for selling methadone, George believes that if it weren't for the initiation of an undercover officer, there often would be no sale.
"A lot of methadone users are on public assistance, and just scraping by," said George. "People are not out there hawking bottles…. Maybe two out of three arrests are users approached by undercovers who had no intention of selling the bottle."