Lawrence Lanahan Interview Transcript

Lawrence Lanahan is a freelance print and radio journalist in Baltimore. This interview took place on September 1, 2018.

It would be helpful if you described your background and current beat.

My name is Lawrence Lanahan and I am a freelance reporter based in Baltimore, and I’ve been covering inequality and racial equality for about ten years. I followed Hurricane Katrina evacuees in Omaha to see how they were treated out there and covered some evacuees in New York right after the storm when I was living there. Inequality, segregation, and racial injustice are the backstory of almost every story here in Baltimore. At some point I decided to just focus on the backstory.

What made you start covering opioids? Was it assigned to you or naturally flowing from your other reporting?

In a lot of my reporting, I was a producer for a Maryland Morning, which was a daily news interview program in Maryland, and we covered a lot of Baltimore. After I started freelancing, a photographer friend of mine who works for Baltimore City Paper, which is the alternative weekly in Baltimore, said I should do a story on methadone, which, for forty years, has been used to help people stay off of heroin. I said “yeah”, and the story I was really interested in was what would happen when you tried to open a methadone clinic in Baltimore. If you try to open a methadone clinic, the neighbors go crazy. And I get it. Where I lived in Hampden, my old neighborhood in Baltimore, there was a methadone clinic four blocks away, and those blocks were kind of a mess first thing in the morning. Some people take methadone and take other stuff, and you’ve got drug dealers descending upon people who are trying to stay off heroin and trying to sell them benzodiazepines and other stuff too. I didn’t have a problem with it because you need treatment, and methadone is an effective way to treat. But every time you try to open one of these things, the neighbors go crazy, saying, it’s going to bring down their property values, and if they’re not being quite honest, they’ll say it is not in the interest of the addicted people themselves. So this guy Joe was a photographer, wanted to do a story, and I said “why not the battle between the neighborhoods and the clinics?” So I came in to the City Paper and they had a whole issue they were doing about heroin, like the new face of heroin. I said “let’s do it”, so we planned the whole issue and I did the article about that whole conflict.

I found that piece to be very riveting and very detailed. It was interesting to see the tension between the people of the city trying to use zoning ordinances to shut down a methadone clinic but then running into potential litigation because of the Federal Americans with Disabilities Act. I just found it really interesting to see the interplay of law at the federal versus the local level. I also found it interesting that there was some tension between the people who were going to the methadone clinics versus others who believe philosophically that there should be a 12-step program rather than drug substitution.

 

That really struck me. That really struck me. I found that out from an addicted person inside the methadone clinic. I was lucky enough to stumble in and be invited to a counseling session. One thing I think people don’t get about methadone clinics is that a lot of them have a lot of different services. They have all kinds of meetings and peer counselors, people who have overcome their addictions working with people who are new to the clinic. Wanda, my main character, went to the methadone clinics for the meetings as much as she would go for the methadone. Anyone who’s addicted, to alcohol or whatever, will tell you all day about meetings. There’s a lot of good stuff for people there. There’s also these “gas-and-go” clinics, as they call them, where you don’t have to go to meetings. I was speaking with a whole bunch of guys who were in the clinic, taking methadone, going to meetings, and talking about their struggle to destigmatize, and one of them said, “Yeah, you know, when I go to NA (Narcotics Anonymous), they aren’t real happy with me because they don’t consider me clean because I take methadone.”  I did a story ten years ago about the Baltimore Sun, a whole series about buprenorphine, which is another addiction treatment medicine that is prescribed. It has a big advantage over methadone because one prescribes it and people can take it at home. The Baltimore Sun did all this stuff about how it’s being diverted and abused on the street. I have a lot of perspective about that story. The person who had written that story for the Sun – “uh oh, we have a problem with buprenorphine” – was the same person who’d written an identical story in another district thirty years before about methadone. People should take into account the harm reduction model – of course some people are going to abuse it, but overall it’s going to be a benefit for people who are addicted. That’s the context. And I don’t always see that context in reporting.

 

It’s interesting that the research is mixed. Some research showed that the presence of a methadone clinic did not necessarily cause issues with crime or other things, but there was some other research that indicated otherwise and that there were also issues with drug dealers clustering around and buying and selling going on.

Yeah. I mean, it depends on what kind of crime you’re talking about. Is a methadone clinic going to bring shootings to a neighborhood? I don’t know, probably not. I don’t think a methadone clinic is going to bring violent crime to a neighborhood. One of the studies was like, “look, it doesn’t bring Part 1 crime” so yeah, maybe it’s not bringing shootings or whatever. But regarding the crimes that neighborhoods complain about, like low level drug dealing, trash, and loitering, maybe it does. I mean, you could just walk around the two blocks where I was reporting and it is a mess. And that’s the deal – what kind of crime are you complaining about? What kind of crime do you have a problem with? I think both sides are sort of right.

 

Your article also talked about how if there are certain adverse behaviors that people who go to the methadone clinic engage in, such as buying and selling or being disruptive, then the rules allow the clinic to discontinue them from having the service. But it seems like the administrators of the clinic are trying to help, so it’s an interesting dynamic there.

It is interesting. The neighbors complain about it saying, “people are out here buying and selling!” and the clinic’s like, “well, if they’re selling, we don’t like that. We don’t want that.” If their methadone patients are on the street buying other drugs--to a health professional, that means the person needs more help. They’re there because they’re addicted, and they have a problem with needing to buy these drugs to take them. So you reach out and you give them more services. People in the neighborhood see them as a problem, and people in the clinic see them as people who need help – as they should. There are a ton of places where the neighborhoods and clinics aren’t seeing eye-to-eye and that’s certainly one of them. Some people think that if you’re buying drugs, you shouldn’t be part of the program, and if you’re [working] in the clinic, that’s exactly why [people in recovery] should be: we need to help them more. You know, the thing you mentioned earlier about zoning is interesting because most of my reporting is about housing discrimination, and one thing people don’t want in neighborhoods, even worse than [they don’t want] methadone clinics, is low-income housing. Whereas the Americans with Disabilities Act kinda saves the clinics sometimes – you can’t tell a methadone clinic to do all this special stuff if you’re not going to do it for like an orthopedic clinic – with housing, it’s the Fair Housing Act that sort of saves low-income housing. It’s a NIMBY issue; if people with money had their way, there wouldn’t be any environmental hazards in the neighborhood, there wouldn’t be any low-income housing, there wouldn’t be any methadone clinics, and forty years ago, there wouldn’t have been any black people! There’s an argument that that’s at the root of a lot of these things across the board: wealth follows whiteness, and white people want to protect their assets. The way to do that is to keep these places white and supposedly free of problems that occur in black neighborhoods, like crime or addiction, and guess what? White people have the same problems.