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Drug treatment centers would face fewer hurdles in Georgia under new bill

Katherine Landergan, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in News & Features

A bill that would remove a significant restriction for drug treatment centers in Georgia is making its way through the state Legislature.

In December, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote about a decades-old provision in the state’s zoning code that forces drug treatment centers to wait anywhere from six to nine months before approval. The AJC found examples where facility operators had lost large sums of money while waiting to go through the zoning process, and identified at least one center that didn’t open at all because of the restrictions.

Last week, the Georgia House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted to approve a bill that would strike down this longer waiting period. In all, 161 state representatives voted for the legislation, and five voted against it.

Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, a co-sponsor on the bill, said the bill is a step in making sure that addiction is treated like any other disease.

“We need to change that stigma of ‘we don’t want those kinds of people in my community,’” Cooper said. “Those people are our sons and daughters, our nieces and nephews, our friends at church.”

Adam Kaye, a real estate lawyer, brought the issue before lawmakers in recent months after his client encountered the long waiting period when trying open a drug treatment center in Fayette County. The AJC spoke to several representatives for drug treatment centers in Georgia, and found that enforcement of the waiting period is spotty: some counties and local governments do not enforce the statute, while others do.

The AJC couldn’t identify the reasoning for the longer waiting period restriction, which was added into the state’s zoning code in 1998. Kaye and other proponents for drug treatment centers said they believe the statute is reflective of the not-in-my-backyard attitude that often comes with trying to open a facility in a new area, and questioned whether the restriction runs counter to the state’s present-day agenda of expanding treatment for mental health and substance abuse.

The months-long waiting period that’s on the books may also violate federal laws that are designed to protect the rights of people in recovery for substance abuse. Two legal experts said they believe the existing statute would be extremely vulnerable if it were ever challenged in court.

 

Rep. Dale Washburn, R-Macon, the bill’s primary sponsor, said one of the reasons there’s been such little opposition to the bill is because removing these extra restrictions will bring the state’s zoning code into compliance with federal law.

“We think it’s the right thing to do, that these types of facilities should not have extra burden in terms of getting approval, and we also believe that the state of Georgia should comply with federal law,” Washburn said.

The typical property that’s going through the re-zoning process must wait anywhere from 15 days to 45 days; under this bill, drug treatment centers would now be subject to that standard waiting period.

The bill must now go through the Georgia Senate before landing on Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk. Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, who is co-sponsoring the bill, said she is hopeful it will pass this Legislative session.

“I’m glad this zoning obstacle came to our attention, based on a real world example of why it could be a barrier,” she said.

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©2024 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Visit at ajc.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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