With a growing segment of the country beginning to view addiction as a disease that needs treatment, a northern Arizona city is mulling over a new law that allows it to register and regulate a cottage industry of sober living homes thriving among its residential neighborhoods.
Prescott residents are dealing with an influx of recovering drug addicts drawn to the mountain community for many of the same reasons as retirees — cool air, pine trees and a small town atmosphere.
Neighbors complain about loud music, foul language and cigarette butts emanating from sober living homes. While residents say they believe addicts deserve help, many take a “not in my backyard” stance on the homes.
State governments throughout the U.S. are working to curb the effects of drug addiction.
Nearly every state, including Arizona, has increased access to a lifesaving drug known as naloxone that can stop a heroin overdose. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey also signed laws in May requiring doctors to check a state database before prescribing opiate painkillers in most cases, plus the law allowing municipalities to regulate sober living homes.
Under the law that goes into effect in August, cities, towns and counties can require sober living homes to register and force them to meet standards. Those can include on-hours supervision and a plan to help rehabilitate and discharge people living there.
Prescott is drafting an ordinance that’s set to go to the city council before August, said Jean Wilcox, a Prescott city council member.
But in the realm of public perception, change is slow and many still view addiction as a character flaw said John Kelly, director of the Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts general hospital.
“We talk about it and understand it more, but we don’t also talk about it as treatable and as a disease that people can recover from,” Kelly said.
Recovering addicts often move into sober living homes after leaving rehab. There they live with like-minded people, work and usually continue treatment through programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.
States including California and Florida as well as municipalities like Prescott have had trouble regulating the homes because recovering addicts are a federally protected class under the Fair Housing Amendments Act.
Prescott city officials resorted to zoning regulations to prevent any neighborhood from having too many sober living homes.
But that wasn’t enough for many residents, said Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, who added that his city is “inundated” with sober living homes.
“We want to do the right thing here, but I don’t want to be known as the drug rehab capital of America,” said Campbell, who sponsored the new law. “We are an older demographic, you are mixing younger people with older retirees. It’s a clash of cultures you might want to say.”
Prescott officials estimate the city has between 130 and 200 rehab facilities, in a city of about 40,000 people.
But only about 1 percent of all calls for service dealt with community residences, according to a police report detailing calls for service during a six-month period that ended in April.
Andy Reinhardt, Prescott’s deputy police chief, said the city has seen an overall decrease in crime since last year, but thinks sober living homes are a neighborhood nuisance.
“If we get a crime that is often associated with drug activity, I mean our investigation would first focus on a nearby location where there is a group home for instance,” he said.
Other Prescott residents said recovering addicts can appear intimidating.
Mary Beth Hrin described seeing vans full of recovering addicts crowd a local grocery store. She said they yelled across the store and purposely blocked aisles with their carts.
“They haven’t been taught manners by their parents,” she said.
But she is sympathetic.
“I really believe that the reasons we have the problems in the neighborhoods is because the standard of care is so poor,” she said.
But Hrin’s story could just as easily describe a group of retirees from a local nursing home out on a grocery run, said Bradley Callow, a former executive for a Prescott Sober living home.
“It boils down to empathy, both sides could find more empathy,” he said.
Callow said much of the tension between longtime residents and recovering addicts stems from the latter still trying to find out who they are, which can include loud music, saggy clothes, piercings and tattoos.
Seth Born, 40, an alcoholic in long-term recovery, said locals stereotyped him when he first bought a home in Prescott.
Neighbors saw a recovery home sticker on his roommate’s car and assumed a sober living home was moving in next door. Soon they were reporting him for garbage can violations and for letting his dog off the leash.
“Once they found out we weren’t a group home everybody got a lot nicer to us,” he said.
Born agrees a new city ordinance would improve the quality of service at the homes and benefit everyone.
“We need responsible people in charge, and we need to make decisions not based on fear but good science, ethics and integrity,” Born said.